Electrical distribution, redefined

Technology developments improve safety, maintenance while limiting outages.

By James Stacy September 22, 2016

It’s a burgeoning new age for electrical distribution, and pervasive new technology is creating roots in the field. In order to keep up with technological advancements, new designs, features and architectures that innovate within the space are growing in popularity, enabling safer solutions and protection from devastating events such as arc flash.

As greater industrialization feeds the need for plants to work smarter, harder and with more connectivity, plant managers need a more consistent level of reliability and safety, which demands a more efficient system. The demand for safer and more reliable power distribution methods is universal. Companies are racing to determine which technologies can offer the highest levels of safety to mitigate risk for maintenance personnel. While electrocution was the seminal danger two decades ago, contemporary dangers such as arc flash are now the major concern for managing electrical distribution systems. In the event of an incident, weak distribution channels and/or connections can cause dangerous electrical explosions or discharge that puts electrical workers and grid reliability at risk.

As a result, it’s critical for companies to use an electrical distribution system that not only ensures personnel and asset safety in the event of extreme weather or human error but also reduces the amount of maintenance time spent by electrical workers, where they can be put in danger of unexpected disasters.

For the same reason, reliability is another major concern in terms of personnel and asset safety. Because electrical equipment can be hazardous to handle, companies are now demanding solutions that can minimize risk to avoid dangerous events. Through all the innovation in the electrical distribution industry, a worst-case scenario remains the same: power failure.

The chaos caused by power failure can cost companies in numerous ways, and new technologies need to emphasize reliability for prevention. To address this challenge, end users are looking for solutions that enhance reliability, cost-effectiveness and simplicity without compromising environmental or physical safety and security.

Safety by design

Switchgear technologies have emerged as the most equipped to handle the contemporary electrical demands, while maintaining the level of reliability and safety that plant managers desire and need. According to the most recent estimates from research and consulting firm Global Data, the global switchgear market is set to rise from an estimated $49.7 billion in 2015 to just under $84 billion by 2020.

Electrical switchgear has typically been seen as a long-life, low-maintenance item. Because it does not usually require much maintenance, it is often the most overlooked component in the electrical distribution system. Though it can be low maintenance, it has not completely removed human error that can ultimately cause a system to fail. As the industry continues to evolve, winning companies are looking at switchgear as a competitive advantage-enabling them to modernize aging plant infrastructure, saving time and money, while delivering the highest levels of power availability.

Innovation in switchgear design allows managers to install and operate medium- and low-voltage networks with lasting performance and reduced risk. For example, the introduction of Shield Solid Insulated System (2SIS) technology offers an accidentally touch-safe system to protect against internal arcing by insulating the main circuit components with a layer of solid material.

Covered by an external conductive coating, there is no electric field in the ambient air because the live conductors and the ground are confined within the switchgear enclosure. This design also prevents damage to the system itself, shielding the switchgear from the dust, water, humidity and other environmental factors.

Additionally, new approaches to grounding switches allow switchgear to remove the human element of risk and variability. The newest switchgear systems also offer more flexibility post-installation. Switchgear users no longer need to uproot their power system completely to migrate from a withdrawable system (U.S. standard) to a fix-mounted option (international standard). Rather than overhauling legacy infrastructure, switchgear bridges the generational gap while addressing contemporary needs to mitigate safety risks.

Performing maintenance on the electrical distribution network involves inherent risk to the maintenance personnel. The newest switchgear can operate virtually maintenance free, reducing the arc flash and electrocution risk, while increasing uptime and lowering total cost of ownership. The industrial sector is built on the principles of productivity and efficiency.

Preventive maintenance and high-performing solutions are the crux to maximizing profitability, and the electrical system is no exception. The highest performing electrical system starts with the switchgear. By innovating in the design and technology of switchgear, we can minimize the risk to workers and the system. When overseeing plant operations, plant managers need solutions that will bring peace of mind. Maintaining the electrical system is the most critical path to achieving it.

James Stacy is director of offer strategy for Schneider Electric’s energy business.