The transformative impact of automation on LV and MV switchgear

19th April 2024


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The advent of automation in the electrical industry has revolutionised the functionality and efficiency of low voltage (LV) and medium voltage (MV) switchgear in secondary reticulation. 

Automation has not only streamlined operations but also enhanced the safety and reliability of power distribution networks, marking a significant leap in the evolution of switchgear technology. Despite these clear benefits, the industry's mixed reception reveals a complex landscape of technological adoption, highlighting a journey marked by both advancements and challenges.

Traditionally, LV and MV switchgear were manually operated, serving as the cornerstone for controlling power flow and protecting electrical circuits from overloads and faults. These systems were mechanical, requiring physical manipulation to operate or switch circuits under different load conditions. As the electricity demand grew and systems became more complex, the need for more efficient, reliable and safe control mechanisms became evident, setting the stage for the integration of automation in switchgear systems.

The transition from manual to automated operations represents a paradigm shift, driven by the need for more efficient management of electrical power with minimal human intervention. Automated switchgear systems use intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) and remote control and monitoring systems, facilitating real-time data acquisition, condition monitoring and precise control. This evolution has led to reduced downtime, improved system reliability and enhanced capacity to pre-emptively address potential issues, thereby minimising the risk of power outages and equipment failures.

Digitalisation has further propelled the automation of switchgear, integrating cutting-edge technologies such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI). These advancements enable enhanced data analytics, predictive maintenance and better decision-making processes. Digitalised switchgear operates more efficiently, offering detailed insights into system performance and energy consumption, and enabling remote management and diagnostics. This level of control and monitoring not only improves operational performance but also extends the lifespan of the equipment.

Despite the clear advantages, certain industries remain hesitant to fully embrace automation in switchgear. This reluctance often stems from concerns about reliability and the fear of increased vulnerability to cyber-attacks or system failures. In critical applications, such as healthcare or manufacturing, where uninterrupted power supply is paramount, the perceived risks of transitioning to a fully automated system can outweigh the potential benefits.

In my professional experience, the shift towards automation in switchgear systems has been significant, especially during replacement projects of outdated equipment with modern, automated switchgear. This process involves replacing old, end-of-life switchgear with advanced, internal arc-proof switchboards equipped with modern IEDs. 

A notable improvement includes sophisticated auto-transfer systems capable of handling many signals, drastically reducing the likelihood of false or incorrect transfers. Traditional switchgear relied on numerous relays and auxiliary components, a method that pales in comparison to the capabilities of modern IEDs. These devices enhance alarm management and historical data logging, while also improving the accuracy and response time of protection trips.

However, transitioning to modern automation is not without challenges. A notable issue is the phase-out of older communication protocols, complicating the updating or replacement of IEDs if not proactively managed. It is crucial to maintain compatibility with existing communication equipment to avoid emergency replacement difficulties. Further, the original configuration or project files must be meticulously preserved to ensure system integrity during modifications.

To bridge the gap between traditional and modern systems, developing hybrid solutions combines communication-based automation with conventional copper-based control methods. This approach not only maintains system reliability but also assuages concerns regarding the dependability of fully automated systems. Such dual-system setups offer a fallback option, reassuring stakeholders of the system's reliability and easing the transition to more advanced automation technologies.

The future of switchgear automation is promising, indicating an increasing embrace of automated technologies, which I believe will continue to enhance the efficiency, reliability and safety of electrical distribution systems. The blend of traditional and modern methodologies in switchgear projects exemplifies the industry's adaptability and commitment to leveraging technology for improved operational performance.

Looking ahead, emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning could lead to more autonomous systems capable of self-diagnosis and self-correction. However, addressing challenges like cybersecurity threats, technical complexities, and the need for a skilled workforce for effective management and operation of automated systems is essential to fully harness the potential of automation in switchgear.

Andries Koen, a South African electrical engineer with a B.Eng. from North West University, specialises in LV and MV switchgear. Since 2011, he has worked at Proconics, ascending to Senior Manager: Electrical. His expertise lies in modernising switchgear through automation, enhancing efficiency, reliability and safety in power distribution. 

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter



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