Why power quality is vital to research facilities by David Evans, Public Sector Segments Leader at Schneider Electric UK&I
Science and research are vital to addressing some of humanity’s biggest challenges. In the 2020 budget, the UK government announced the largest ever expansion of support for basic research and innovation. Initially, over £10 billion has been allocated to BEIS programmes and partner organisations from 2020 to 2021, with future investment set to reach £22 billion per year by 2024/25.
Without doubt, technology has transformed the academic research landscape. In 1968, the statistics software SPSS was created. The software, which is still used today, removed the need for researchers to perform linear regressions by hand. Fast forward to 2021, technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and automation have provided scientists with new analytical capabilities that go beyond what is humanly possible.
As the operator or facility manager of a research facility, streamlining processes and reducing operational costs without compromising data reliability and validity is vital. A key component in achieving these outcomes falls to the – at times overlooked – power environment.
The equipment and instruments within a laboratory rely upon the power supply to conduct tests, some of which can be sensitive and critical. Alarmingly, “90% of the electrical disturbances that impact the integrity of the power flowing through the sensitive instruments in laboratories are invisible”.
Energy consumption has never been under such high scrutiny as it is currently. Not only is their concern about the cost of energy consumption, particularly in facilities which are only part occupied, but most organisations have ambitious Net Zero Carbon sustainability targets. Generally, the more critical the facility, the higher the energy demand.
University campus buildings and facilities cover a wide variety of use cases. In terms of their power requirements, there are many low demand areas such as libraries, lecture theatres and study rooms, as well as power intensive environments such as research laboratories and data centres. Whilst all the areas listed can be optimised through power analysis and remote operations, the importance of power quality in critical environments is emphasised due to the sensitive nature of equipment and research activity.
Trends and Challenges effecting the Power Quality Environment
For facilities with critical power needs – such as hospitals, research facilities, data centres and airports – ensuring high power efficiency and availability remains a very challenging prospect. There are many reasons for this:
- A more dynamic grid: Utilities are adding renewables and other distributed energy sources. In the longer term, this promises to help improve grid stability and efficiency, but integrating green energy is causing challenges in some parts of the world, with countries such as Australia experiencing an increased risk of blackouts. Another risk to grid stability is periods of high demand, especially when an aging transmission system is finding it hard to keep up. For this reason, many grid operators continue to offer demand response programs to reduce stress on the transmission network. Taking advantage of these programs can offer significant paybacks for large energy users, but it requires careful management of loads and onsite generation assets. Finally, the risk of widespread power outages due to extreme weather is growing. Although we often associate extreme weather with hurricanes and tornados in the Atlantic and Pacific, weather events such as extreme cold, strong winds and heavy rain can cause power disruptions.
- More complex power distribution systems: At large facilities, plants, and campuses, power distribution systems typically evolve over time to accommodate more loads. This can either be more dispersed loads or higher load densities within the same footprint. Today, many of these loads are increasingly power sensitive, including automation systems, variable-speed drives (VSDs), computers, data servers, and communication networks. Many types of loads can also be the source of potential power quality issues. For example, excessive power harmonics can be produced by electric arc furnaces, inverters, DC converters, switch-mode power supplies, AC or DC motor drives, and variable speed drives. Lower power factor can be caused by large numbers of motors. It is also becoming common for large sites to include onsite generation, either for power backup, ‘peak shaving’ to avoid demand penalties, or to consume self-generated renewable energy when it’s most economical. Onsite generation often paired with energy storage creates a facility or campus microgrid that can optimise costs and reliability, even ‘islanding’ itself in the event of a complete grid blackout. But managing this effectively requires advanced levels of monitoring and control intelligence.
- More competitive forces and budget pressure: Every organisation is tasked with maximising productivity and cutting operational costs. Businesses are also using operational efficiency as a competitive advantage, turning reduced costs into greater financial performance. Energy plays a big role in this equation, as power reliability has a direct influence on productivity, while equipment maintenance and energy costs impact the bottom line.
In fact, quality power issues are often the cause of one of the largest avoidable operational costs – downtime. It has been found that 30-40% of downtime in any given building is due to power quality issues and 70% of these originate inside the building itself. Whilst this may seem daunting, the good news is that there are ways to both identify and mitigate these effects.
- More regulatory requirements: Large facilities are continuing to face stringent energy-related emissions regulations. Finding ways to reduce energy consumption can help, as well as supporting corporate sustainability goals. Companies also need to be aware that the products and solutions they buy comply with the latest hazardous materials standards (RoHS, REACH).
- More cyberattacks: Organisations experience increasing numbers of cyberattacks every year. This includes power utilities, and the consumers of their output; all contributing to potential business instability. Every connected system within a facility should now be considered a potential target, including the power distribution system.
Power and energy management systems are critical to power reliability. When used by facilities teams, they provide a measurable way to mitigate a variety of risks associated with their electrical system including energy efficiency, safety and power quality and reliability.