High-voltage electrical substations — those ubiquitous installations that adjust voltage up or down so that electrical power can travel over long distances and be used in homes and businesses — have for a half-century relied on a highly effective insulator and arc extinguisher that helps keep the size of their substations manageable. Trouble is that the insulator, a gas called sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), is also among the world’s most potent greenhouse gases, and it can linger in the atmosphere for millennia. So, what are electrical utilities to do?

GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions business came up with an answer, and so did another big industry player, Hitachi ABB Power Grids, which installed the first switchgear without SF6. Although the two companies compete for projects, they now decided to find a way to help the environment together. On Wednesday, the day before Earth Day, they announced a nonexclusive cross-licensing agreement that will allow them to replace SF6 with more environmentally-friendly gas insulator alternatives. The agreement will enable utilities and industries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

This alternative to SF6 is GE’s g³ gas (pronounced “g-cubed”), an insulating and switching gas that reduces the global warming potential of SF6 by more than 99% while retaining the same insulating and switching qualities. It also allows electric substations to keep the same compact dimensions and performance as traditional SF6 equipment.

The g³ insulating and switching gas is the result of more than a decade of research and development conducted by GE’s Grid Solutions unit in collaboration with the 3M Company. “Utilities are becoming increasingly aware of their environmental footprint and the impact it has on their communities and the world around them,” said Heiner Markhoff, CEO of GE’s Grid Solutions. “Today’s landmark agreement reinforces our commitment to help our customers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

Green Gas for Grid GE Renewable EnergyAbove: This high-voltage substation use sulfur hexafluoride gas for insulation. GE will start replacing the gas with a more climate-friendly alternative. Image credit: GE Renewable Energy. Top image credit: Getty Images

Today, 23 leading electrical utilities have already adopted GE’s g³ gas-insulated equipment for their high-voltage networks, avoiding the addition of more than a million tons of CO₂ equivalent to the grid. That’s the equivalent of removing about 476,000 gasoline-powered cars from the road for one year.

Under the agreement, both companies will share complementary intellectual property related to their SF6-free solutions. The companies will keep the product development, manufacturing, sales, marketing and service activities of their gas solutions fully independent. Each company will also continue to independently grant and set terms of licenses to its respective intellectual property, preserving supplier base diversity for the industry and fair competition. “As part of our commitment towards a carbon-neutral future and accelerating the energy transition, we have chosen to work towards a standard solution to address the needs of our customers through this cross-licensing agreement,” said Markus Heimbach, managing director of the high-voltage products business in Hitachi ABB Power Grids.

This is truly a historic milestone for the electrical industry as it provides a standard gas solution that will enable the transition away from SF6 and the building of a cleaner grid worldwide for generations to come.

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