The switch to renewable power is one of the most important trends in the energy industry. That transition is mainly a technological one, and many of the most critical technologies are easily overlookable. Wind turbine switchgear, for example, requires careful attention.
Switchgear, which houses and protects circuit breakers and similar equipment, is a crucial part of any electrical installation. However, renewable infrastructure – like wind turbines – carries different needs than its more conventional counterpart. Consequently, companies installing and managing turbines should approach switchgear differently.
One of the best paths forward for wind farms is to pass on the high-voltage switchgear of traditional power stations in favor of medium-voltage options.
The Importance of Wind Turbine Switchgear
Wind is the most common renewable energy source in the U.S., accounting for more than 10% of the nation’s power. As demand for clean electricity grows, these installations will grow, too, but this growth requires some larger infrastructure changes. Reliable switchgear plays an important role in that shift.
Much of the world’s current energy infrastructure is old and inefficient. Grids designed only to serve a few million customers now face rising demand from tens of millions. That makes the power system more susceptible to disruptions and outages, so disruption-prone turbines need switchgear that can manage these changes without failing.
Renewables like wind also don’t produce consistent power levels. Energy generation will ebb and flow with the wind, so the infrastructure supporting these installations must be able to manage these shifts. Choosing the right switchgear will ensure those wavering levels don’t translate into service issues for end-users.
Advantages of Medium-Voltage Switchgear
Medium-voltage (MV) equipment is the ideal option for wind turbine switchgear. These systems operate between 600 volts and 100 kilovolts, which presents several advantages for renewables like wind turbines and the employees who manage them. Here’s a closer look.
One of the most important advantages of MV wind turbine switchgear is its safety. Because this equipment operates at lower voltages, it presents fewer electrocution risks to the employees working with it. As demand for wind power grows, that safety will become more important.
MV switchgear can also come with custom metal enclosures, including metal-enclosed interrupter switches. These barriers provide another layer of protection, helping contain any issues that arise as employees work on other parts of the system. High-voltage systems can feature these defenses too, but MV gear’s smaller size makes it easier to install them in cramped wind turbine towers.
MV switchgear is also more flexible than high-voltage alternatives. As a result, it can adapt to wind turbines’ uneven power levels more effectively, preventing any safety concerns that arise from shortages or overloads.
Wind turbine switchgear also needs to be reliable, which MV equipment ensures. Its greater flexibility and more manageable voltage range mean it provides more consistent service. That consistency means fewer power interruptions for end-users, which is particularly important for renewable energy.
Blackouts and similar issues are already common across the U.S. because of the nation’s aging infrastructure. Renewables like wind heighten these concerns, as their power source is inherently less consistent to begin with. With larger fluctuations at the source, these energy installations need more reliability to deliver that power, so inflexible high-voltage switchgear isn’t ideal.
MV systems are less prone to malfunction and easier to fix if something does go wrong. As a result, they can help utility companies provide the reliability grids need to support large-scale renewable energy.
A less prominent but still important benefit of MV switchgear for wind turbines is its size. Given wind turbines’ demanding reliability needs, they may require frequent maintenance and inspections. However, space inside the tower is minimal, so large, higher-voltage equipment can make that difficult.
MV switchgear is more compact, so it fits within these limited spaces while leaving more room for employees to move. That means easier maintenance and fewer safety concerns. It also makes it easier to install any additional equipment like safety stops or internet of things (IoT) infrastructure for remote operation.
Low-voltage switchgear also provides convenient sizing but isn’t ideal for grid-scale power levels. MV equipment offers a balance between energy delivery and convenience.
Another more easily overlooked but critical advantage of MV switchgear is its lower resource needs. Because this equipment uses smaller conductors and fewer of them, it requires less raw material like copper. Consequently, it has a smaller impact on the environment and can help reduce costs.
Mining generates a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions and can leak dangerous chemicals into the surrounding environment. Copper mining, which is necessary for electrical infrastructure, is the most wasteful metal mining process in the U.S. As a result, increased copper demand from more high-voltage systems reduces renewable power’s overall environmental benefits.
MV switchgear contributes less to these processes by requiring less copper. Similarly, it reduces material costs. These lower costs and reduced environmental damage will help renewable energy grow faster, aiding a more effective green power transition.
Other Considerations for Wind Turbine Switchgear
Of course, voltage isn’t the only factor in finding the ideal wind turbine switchgear. Green energy companies can make the most of MV equipment by including a few other features and technologies.
Switchgear needs reliable insulation to prevent arc faults and similar issues. While air insulation is the most common option, it may not be best for wind turbines, thanks to its large size and lower strength. Gas or fluid insulation may be the better way forward, as these alternatives are more reliable and can reduce equipment sizes.
Turbine switchgear should also be arc-resistant, given the high reliability and safety needs surrounding these installations. IoT monitoring technologies are helpful, too, because they let employees access critical operational data remotely, which improves response times and safety.
MV Switchgear Is the Ideal Solution for Wind Power
Moving to green power will require many complex considerations. While switchgear isn’t the only factor, it’s an important one – and MV switchgear provides the optimal solution.
Wind turbine switchgear must be safe, reliable, compact, and environmentally friendly. Medium-voltage options help meet all of those needs. By using this equipment, wind energy installations can grow faster, helping reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Emily Newton is an industrial journalist. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she regularly covers how technology is changing the industry.