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  • Jessica Zimmer

Distributed Energy Generation Can Fight Super Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Increased use of fluorinated gases could be a stumbling block in the push to electrify society and mitigate climate change.

However, raising awareness about the gases’ powerful global warming potential can help activists advocate for less damaging alternatives. Education can also encourage the energy industry to adopt more environmentally-friendly substitutes.

SF6 gas manufacturing facility
A manufacturing facility for SF6 in Austria managed by AustriaABB. Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

Fluorinated gases, also known as F-gases, play an important role in insulating mid and high-voltage electrical equipment. Yet, F-gases can trap more heat than carbon dioxide and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The key to working effectively with F-gases is to use less of them. It's also helpful to make sure F-gases don't leak out unnoticed, said Dr. Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School in Brighton in the United Kingdom. Sovacool is also the lead author for a recent study on reducing synthetic greenhouse gas emissions.

Sovacool said managing a particular gas called SF6, or sulfur hexafluoride, is especially important. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SF6 is 22,800 times better at trapping heat than CO2. SF6 can remain in the atmosphere for 3,200 years.

“In the past, SF6 was used in shoes, tires, and window glazing across Europe, China and North America. Today it’s used primarily in electrical plants and for military applications. Detecting leaks of old objects that contain SF6 will help enormously. It is also beneficial to engage in better training and management in electrical and military operations,” said Sovacool.

Countries should develop international policies and agreements to track the use of SF6, Sovacool added.

Canisters of argonite, an inert gas mix used for fire suppression, at Buksefjord Hydro Plant, a hydroelectric dam in Buksefjord, Greenland. Credit: Benjamin Sovacool

In the U.S., the EPA is observing the use of SF6 through the Electric Power Systems Partnership. The partnership, which has existed since 1999, is a voluntary effort by over 20 utility providers to identify and implement opportunities to report SF6 emissions. Within the last 20 years, partner utility providers have decreased absolute emissions of SF6 by 75%. The list of partners includes PG&E, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Consolidated Edison Company of New York. In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings have allowed more entities to come to the table to share best practices.

Recent changes in America’s electric power industry include grid modernization, increased electricity consumption and the need for additional grid capacity. The causes of these changes are substantial additions of intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. However, all of the shifts promote increased use of SF6.

“Within the U.S., it would make sense for the federal government to create guidelines regarding the use of SF6. Most electric utility entities operate across state lines. State by state action makes detection and conservation of SF6 more difficult,” said Sovacool.

The EPA is making more resources available about SF6. Its actions range from publishing a 2020 paper on alternatives to SF6-gas-insulated equipment to providing other tools and resources to support utilities improving substations.

Residents and voters can reduce the use of F-gases by letting their local utility and legislative representatives know they support reducing the use of F-gases in the electric transmission and distribution network. They can also advocate for electric industry improvements to substations.

A circuit breaker in an electric substation acts to open and close circuits. It functions much like a breaker in a household distribution panel. If a breaker fails catastrophically, it can lose most, if not all, of its SF6 gas. Ensuring substations remain safe and in good working order can help make sure the SF6 gas does not escape.

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“Encouraging the adoption of distributed ways to generate energy, like wind, hydropower and community-scale solar power, avoid the high-voltage transmission grid. Distributed generation methods are methods that generate electricity at or the place they will be used. Such options reduce the use of SF6 gas,” said Sovacool.

Sovacool added distributed options do not require SF6 use in the national grid when the options serve local markets.

“These options also relieve grid congestion. Every megawatt of solar power we bring online in a revamped configuration of the energy grid avoids the use and loss of F-gases,” said Sovacool.


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