By: Emily Newton
The call for increasing renewable energy has driven switchgear demand amid varying interruptions across the power sector during COVID-19. The pandemic ceased manufacturing operations, tightened supply chain constraints and affected extreme weather events worldwide.
Renewable energy switchgear is critical to the vision for cleaner power as nations gear up innovative technology to build a more robust, secure power supply and distribution system. Reliable switchgear is necessary to enhance power transmission, allowing countries to improve managing and protecting their electric grid equipment.
With worsening climate change and the anticipation of more frequent disruptions, the renewable energy sector is set to increase switchgear technology developments.
Aging Infrastructure a Catalyst for Renewable Energy Switchgear
Grid modernization is the path forward if the United States is to ensure the health and safety of its citizens. The U.S. electric grid spans approximately 600,000 miles of transmission lines, connecting 9,200 units that generate over one million megawatts of electricity. However, the electric grid’s reliability has decreased with aging infrastructure, requiring new technologies to rebuild its resiliency against outages and significant storms.
The World Meteorological Organization reported the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events worsened in 2020, with 50 million people affected by climate-induced natural disasters. As such, evacuations and recovery efforts become increasingly difficult to overcome without a reliable energy sector.
In meeting switchgear demand, utilities can restore service more efficiently, reduce peak loads, cut costs and facilitate a faster transition to renewable energy sources. Implementing advanced controls — such as renewable energy switchgear — would also benefit efforts to modernize the grid toward reaching President Biden’s goal of achieving a net-zero power sector by 2035.
Opportunities to Meet Switchgear Demand
As governments aim to amplify renewables and increase industrialization in rural areas, switchgear demand is at an all-time high. The switchgear market is growing astronomically — it could be worth $109.2 billion by 2030 and grow 4.8% from 2022 to 2030.
Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country seeking to modernize the grid. Other countries have invested in switchgear manufacturing, further contributing to market growth. For instance, India’s switchgear market is projected to grow 6.7% by 2026 as they focus on delivering a more robust power infrastructure to its citizens.
Governments and corporations understand the potential gains associated with alternative energy. Switching to alternative resources can save large companies and small businesses money on electricity bills and even increase revenue. Switchgear’s growth paves the way for employment opportunities in renewable energy, which accounted for 40% of total energy jobs in 2021.
There’s an endless stream of jobs available in the green energy sector. People could help deploy and develop the latest grid technologies or assist businesses in becoming more energy efficient. They could even utilize highly-skilled engineering capabilities to produce electrical control drawings for optimal efficiency.
The American public generally favours opportunities for renewable energy switchgear and cleaner energy. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 79% of Americans say transitioning to renewables should be a priority for the country. Switchgear systems protect renewable energy plant equipment and help optimize switching operations. For instance, switchgear controls allow operators to switch loads to avoid overpowering the circuit breakers in hydro generators.
There is also an emphasis on advancing switchgear solutions for the intelligent grid, and enhancing it will enable the automation of grid control. For example, intelligent switchgear can deliver real-time monitoring by connecting to the Internet of Things and improving diagnostics and protection.
Additionally, the new switchgear systems provide remote operating features via computers and smartphones. Because of this, facility managers can better regulate transmission lines and switch circuit breakers to maintain power loads when necessary. The smart switchgear can also integrate with building and energy management, supervisory control and data collection to help reduce energy consumption and generate savings.
Overcoming the Challenges
Like all areas of digitization, switchgear comes with various constraints and considerations. For instance, temperature, humidity fluctuations, and flood water can negatively impact outdoor systems and underground equipment. These environmental limitations are particularly true for power systems located in areas affected by extreme weather.
There are several examples of how climate-induced weather impacts the aging grid infrastructure. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey put 3.6 gigawatts of power at high risk, while frozen electrical equipment led to widespread outages across Texas in 2021. Meanwhile, Germany’s Storm Cabine caused a mass power outage in 2020 as volatile wind gusts switched off the wind turbines.
These offshore wind farm events also put switchgear systems at risk of corrosion with increased exposure to contaminants, such as dust, smoke, steam and salt. Ultimately, switchgear efficiency vastly depends on having reliable equipment manufacturing to withstand even the harshest environmental conditions.
Another pitfall of switchgear is its expected life span of 15 to 20 years, meaning it’ll need more maintenance with several replacements factored into the budget. Often, facility managers wait to upgrade these technologies until it’s dire due to the high costs of switchgear technology. However, this usually results in unnecessary power disruptions, undue expenses and increased safety hazards.
Experts agree regular maintenance and upgrades are better than replacing the entire system at once. Fortunately, today’s testing technology has improved to make ongoing performance measurements more accurate and efficient.
Yet, one of the prevailing challenges of switchgear maintenance is the uncertainty of replacement parts. These materials are often very costly and difficult to obtain. The switchgear industry has started a separate market focused on providing replacement parts to meet demand, but there’s work to be done.
The market can improve upon this by modernizing materials with a more straightforward design and fewer parts, ensuring the technology requires less maintenance. Facility managers want switchgear with an extended life expectancy to optimize the power supply.
Renewable Energy Switchgear Is No Longer an Option
The risks are too high to overlook switchgear demand. The latest switchgear technology is necessary for modernizing grid infrastructure and safeguarding the national and worldwide power supply as renewable energy becomes the forefront of a secure network.
Emily Newton is a journalist with over four years of covering the environmental sector. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she also covers how technology changes our world.