Electrical grids around the world use a system of switches and instrument transformers known as 'switchgears' to distribute and control the flow of electricity, ensuring it is transmitted to where it is needed safely. Currently, the insulation for these switchgear in the electric transmission and distribution sector (T&D) relies on the fluorinated gas (F-gas) Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6). SF6 is a potent and harmful greenhouse gas with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 25,000 times higher than CO2. When emitted, often because of leaks or during the decommissioning of switchgears, it stays in the atmosphere for up to 3,200 years.
"SF6 is the strongest existing greenhouse gas – even though most people have never heard of it – and it’s about to become even more dangerous for our environment,” says Luka De Bruyckere, Programme Manager at the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS). Switchgears have a service life of up to 40 years, so any actions taken now will ultimately decide the future of Europe’s power grids and whether the EU can achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
The ECOS representative also warns that as electrification gathers pace across Europe, grids will have to be expanded. Therefore, there is a danger that the use of these harmful gases could increase unless clean and sustainable alternatives are used instead. “Electrification should be a solution, not part of the problem,” says De Bruyckere.
Caption: Siemens Energy Clean Air Switchgear | Source: Siemens Energy
How has the EU responded?
The EU has already taken several measures to address the use of F-gases in different sectors. In 2006, the European Commission introduced the F-Gas Regulation, which set emission reduction targets. These were updated in 2014 with a tougher target of cutting emissions by two-thirds by 2030 compared to 2014 levels. On 5 April the European Commission will unveil, as part of its Pollutants and Emissions Package, a Review of the EU F-gas Regulation, which will also address the use of SF6 in electrical switchgear and therefore decide which technologies will be used for the expansion of the grid under the European Green Deal.
Ahead of the unveiling of the F-gas Regulation Review, ENVI Committee Vice-Chair Bas Eickhout told The Parliament Magazine, "With the electrification of our energy system, a rapid phase-out of SF6 is more urgent than ever. In my eyes, a ban on SF6 in switchgear is one of the key goals of the F-gas Regulation Review. It's therefore a good first step, that the Commission is set to in include this in the proposal. However, phase-out dates should not follow market trends, but give a clear signal to companies so that they accelerate innovation and investments. That was the big lesson from the last revision, which should be reflected now.''
“With the electrification of our energy system, a rapid phase-out of SF6 is more urgent than ever. In my eyes, a ban on SF6 in switchgear is one of the key goals of the F-Gas Regulation Review”
MEP Bas Eickhout
While ENVI Committee colleague Jutta Paulus told The Parliament Magazine, "For reaching the EU’s climate goal, it is crucial that the Commission proposes a phase-out for all fluorinated gases as soon as possible, especially for those with the highest global warming potential and those with additional environmental damage. As sustainable alternatives for switchgear are available today, sulphur hexafluoride, which is the strongest known greenhouse gas, should be phased out completely."
With the aim of the European Commission to phase out SF6 in power grids, the focus now shifts towards available alternatives to replace SF6 in switchgear. Currently two alternatives are on the market: one alternative replaces SF6 with the F-gas Fluoronitrile with a GWP of 2800. Fluoronitrile is also a type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) which are currently under review for potential restriction due to their associated environmental and human health risks. The other alternative replaces SF6 with natural origin gases based on air (like N2, O2 and CO2) which have zero impact on the climate, the environment and human health with a GWP of <1.
What is the industry response?
Industry leaders have so far welcomed EU-level actions, with Masanori Osumi, General Manager of the Switchgear department at the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation T&D Systems Center, telling The Parliament Magazine, “The industry welcomes Europe taking a lead in reducing SF6 gas emissions to carbon neutrality - and the industry has been both proactive and passionate in the development of zero-emission switchgear products that use F-gas-free alternatives.”
However, they argue that more can be done such as establishing a regulatory environment that supports the phasing-out of SF6 and bans F-gas/PFAS alternatives in switchgear. Tim Holt, Member of the Executive Board at Siemens Energy, told The Parliament Magazine, “Shaping the energy transformation and grid technologies of tomorrow drives us to develop clean air technologies without compromising on performance, while improving operational safety. Today, the Review of the F-gas Regulation in Europe should set course for zero impact technologies in power equipment.”
“Shaping the energy transformation and grid technologies of tomorrow drives us to develop clean air technologies without compromising on performance, while improving operational safety”
Tim Holt, Siemens Energy
Last year, many of the world’s leading T&D companies, including Siemens Energy, Mitsubishi Electric, Schneider Electric, Toshiba, Nuventura, Iljin, Eaton, Siemens AG and Meidensha Corporation, signed a joint T&D statement committing themselves to delivering T&D equipment free of F-gases and PFAS that are needed to enable the transition. Soon after, leading AIS Instrument Transformers, Pfiffner and Trench also committed themselves to phase out F-gases to provide equipment with zero emission. These companies have already developed alternatives based on natural origin gases which are tried and tested technologies that are reliable and affordable with a GWP <1. The technology has already been in operation for more than ten years. It has lower maintenance cost and is safer than F-Gas/PFAS alternatives, with no health hazards nor risks to workers during operation. Siemens Energy is developing a complete portfolio of Clean Air Switchgear with GWP = 0.
In light of the availability of clean alternatives, industry leaders argue that the Review of the F-gas Regulation is an opportunity to set much higher emission reduction targets and ban all F-Gas/PFAS alternatives. Melton Chang, Senior Vice President of Medium Voltage Line of Business at Schneider Electric, told The Parliament Magazine, “For Europe to meet its environmental ambitions, now is the time for policy to move the power industry away from the use of greenhouse gases in electrical equipment. Technology suppliers have already innovated beyond F-gases and are ready to support this crucial transition to green and digital infrastructure, which desperately needs to speed up.”
Finally, it’s worth remembering that for every ton of F-gases still in use in our power grids by 2050, Europe will eventually have to pay for offset measures to reach climate neutrality. Therefore, this Review could be crucial in deciding whether Europe’s power grids will be climate neutral and toxic-free by 2050 by allowing for innovative and clean alternatives or if the power grid will keep depending on F-gases.
This content was commissioned by Siemens Energy and produced by Dods