Maximising the life, efficiency and functionality of ageing power distribution infrastructure is a pressing issue for many network operators. Changes to distribution over the past few decades have put considerable pressure on existing installed assets. For example, the growth of distributed generation from renewable sources needs a flexible network capable of managing lower voltage generation and changes in power flow.

With renewable energy generation forecast to increase three-fold globally by 2017, led by Europe, North America and Asia Pacific and backed by strong growth in Africa and the Middle East1, these pressures are set to increase.

Growing demand for electricity and meeting the increasingly tough performance targets set by governments and regulators add to the pressure for network operators. According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Authority, world electricity demand is projected to double between 2000 and 2030, growing at an annual rate of 2.4% – faster than any other energy source2.

To meet these demands network operators must secure a stable, reliable and high performance distribution network, but this is complicated by the fact that a considerable proportion of existing infrastructure is now 30, 40 or even 50 years old. While much of this legacy equipment is still operating effectively at the moment, operators increasingly need to look at ways of extending the efficiency and functionality of the asset base in order to meet performance targets and growing demand.

The challenge is to achieve these performance improvements without prohibitively expensive investment in new technology. Economic uncertainties have made companies cautious about wholesale replacement of equipment and many are looking for affordable investment strategies which reliably and safely extend the life of the current asset base, while at the same time protecting employees.

Maximising the asset base

One solution is to retrofit or upgrade existing equipment. This typically involves the replacement of old circuit breakers and switches with modern vacuum circuit breakers. This is a much more cost effective option than replacement of a complete ring main unit. It is also quicker, easier and less disruptive, as most retrofit equipment is designed to be safely fitted, without system downtime, while units remain energised.

With the addition of modular remote terminal units (RTUs), such as Lucy Switchgear’s Gemini RTU, at selected switching points, operators can achieve an improved flow of network data, giving a more in-depth understanding of the dynamics of their network.

This is particularly important in networks with ageing asset bases, as the dynamics will have changed significantly since the original installation. Effective data collection and a clear understanding of the current network dynamic not only facilitates rapid fault detection but also provides all the information operators require when considering automation strategies – the next major challenge for operators with legacy networks.

Retrofit strategies also give operators the opportunity to add remote control to existing switchgear. Typically this involves the addition of retrofit actuators and control modules to RTUs at selected switching points. These allow for remote control of the ring switch and can be installed with minimal incremental investment.

Installing remote control has a number of operational benefits. It gives network operators the ability to “load shift” remotely to quickly adapt a network to changing conditions and allows rapid reconfiguration of the network after a medium voltage/high voltage fault has occurred, quickly isolating faults and restoring customers’ supply within minutes of faults occurring.

As specialists in high-performance medium voltage switchgear, Lucy Switchgear offers a range of retro-fit solutions which covers all of the major manufacturers and can be tailored to accommodate virtually any switchgear. For example, Lucy Switchgear engineers recently worked with a UK network operator, which used unique legacy equipment. By tailoring existing Lucy Switchgear product, the Lucy Switchgear engineers were able to create a bespoke, retrofit solution that is now operating live on the network operator’s sites across the UK.

The company also provides dedicated after-sales support throughout the product lifecycle, with an established international network and local track record in over 50 countries, so distribution network operators have complete peace of mind, even when choosing bespoke solutions.

Protecting people and equipment

Good monitoring and maintenance helps to maximise the effectiveness of the infrastructure and protects the safety of maintenance personnel and the security of supply. This is particularly important with equipment that may have deteriorated over the years and needs additional attention to maintain its optimum operation.

But some older legacy equipment can present companies with sourcing challenges. With over 100 years of industry experience in developing medium voltage secondary power distribution solutions, Lucy Switchgear is able to provide compatible parts for a wide range of legacy switchgear and has the technical expertise and knowledge to design cost effective, reliable solutions for difficult-to-source maintenance items.

Retrofitting can also improve operator safety in a number of ways. The replacement of old oil-insulated switchgear removes an inherent fire risk for ageing equipment, and installing retrofit switchgear with delayed operation (an option offered on many Lucy Switchgear products) allows engineers to move to a safe distance before the switch operates, in case of failure.

Alternatively, ring switches and circuit breakers can be motorised during retrofits so that engineers don’t need to stand in front of switchgear for maintenance switching. This improves safety during both fault location and maintenance procedures – especially in ageing switchgear where the risk of failure is greater. It is particularly beneficial at sites that are difficult to access, such as underground substations, or where engineers are at risk of personal attack.

Planning for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges

Retrofitting or upgrading equipment gives network operators a cost effective way of maximising their existing asset base to meet today’s demands and managing networks more proactively for tomorrow’s challenges. Deployment and installation is generally quick and easy and, with strategic planning, upgrades can also provide a first step on a route map to full automation.

Lucy Switchgear is able to provide companies with maintenance, upgrades and retrofit solutions for all makes of switchgear equipment. As such the company is well placed to help distribution network operators achieve their goal of securing a stable, reliable and high performance distribution network which meets the evolving technical and market demands of their customers.