Innovation needed: SF6-free switchgear to reduce environmental impact

07 February 2024

Peter Betts, engineering director, VIRTUS Data Centres

Peter Betts, engineering director, VIRTUS Data Centres

Switchgear plays a crucial role in maintaining the seamless operation of power networks due to its essential functions in the electrical infrastructure – serving as a protective device that enables the control, isolation, and distribution of electrical power. However, the widespread use of sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) gas in switchgear presents an environmental challenge.

With a Global Warming Potential (GWP) tens of thousands of times worse than carbon dioxide, and annual emissions growing (SF6 rose 24% between 2008-2018), SF6 poses a threat to climate stability and global warming. Furthermore, accurately tracking the release of SF6 gas in developing countries is challenging, indicating that the level of SF6 released into the atmosphere may be underestimated.

The environmental impact of SF6 gas: unveiling the challenges
Switchgear, an essential component of power systems, relies on SF6 gas due to its unique properties that make it ideal for insulation and arc-quenching purposes.

However, with a GWP far exceeding carbon dioxide, and the fact that when exposed to high temperatures, SF6 transforms into a harmful powder, SF6 poses severe risks to human health.

Today, the wider understanding of the potency of this gas and the need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is causing a rethink of the use of SF6 gas, so the need to address this issue has become increasingly apparent. It’s imperative for the data centre industry and other electricity-intensive sectors to take the lead in tackling this environmental concern. By championing innovative switchgear solutions that eliminate the use of harmful SF6 gas, these sectors can showcase their commitment to driving sustainable, technological advancements and pushing the boundaries of efficiency and effectiveness.

Leading the charge
While the European Community has taken steps to eliminate SF6, the UK is yet to implement such regulations. But, even in the absence of legislation, it is crucial for the industry to drive innovation and make environmentally responsible choices. By actively advocating for SF6-free switchgear and encouraging its adoption, data centre operators can demonstrate their commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainability and lead by example.

Due to its energy usage, the data centre industry has the buying power to create market demand for SF6-free switchgear. And in pushing for its use, operators can incentivise manufacturers to invest in research and development, leading to the development of more environmentally friendly solutions. This market demand-driven approach which prioritises innovation, can lead to a wider adoption of sustainable switchgear solutions in other industries such as renewable energy production and electric vehicles.

Considering the alternatives
To reduce the environmental impact of SF6 gas in switchgear, some data centre operators are actively exploring and adopting sustainable alternatives. These include air-insulated switchgear (AIS), vacuum-insulated switchgear (VIS), the development of new gases with lower GWP and solid insulation solutions.

AIS relies on air as the primary insulation medium, significantly minimising the environmental impact compared to SF6 and VIS utilises a vacuum as the insulation medium, eliminating the associated environmental risks of SF6 gas. Researchers and manufacturers are also dedicatedly working on developing alternative gases with lower GWPs like nitrogen, carbon dioxide and fluoroketones. Solid insulation materials not only offer excellent electrical insulation properties but also eliminate the need for greenhouse gases.

There are plenty of viable alternatives, and although the adoption of these solutions may require adjustments in design, engineering, and manufacturing processes – and many are currently in their infancy - the rising demand for SF6-free switchgear is expected to drive improved affordability. Whilst the cost implications of adopting SF6-free switchgear are not yet fully understood, driving market demand will likely lead to improved affordability. As more manufacturers invest in research and development and scale up the production of alternative switchgear solutions, economies of scale can drive down costs. The more stakeholders express their preference for SF6-free switchgear, the more favourable the cost-benefit equation becomes.

A bright future ahead
Addressing the environmental impact of SF6 gas in switchgear necessitates a collaborative effort across diverse sectors that are reliant on electricity. By advocating for SF6-free switchgear, the industry can drive innovation and facilitate the development of environmentally friendly alternatives.

Data centre operators should demonstrate their commitment to mitigate climate change by inspiring the industry and catalysing a transformative shift towards sustainability, paving the way for a greener and more sustainable electrical ecosystem. Through collective action and shared responsibility, the industry can forge a path towards a brighter and more environmentally conscious future.