March 21, 2023
8 min read

It’s time to end the era of F-gases in power grids

Oliver Sachgau

The development of F-gas-free switchgear is long completed. With major manufacturers of high- and medium-voltage switchgear forming an alliance to drive the change away from harmful F-gases, the EU now has a chance to ban them forever.

For electricity grids, the public focus has long been on power generation and the question: are we producing our power using renewable resources? But there’s an equally prominent issue facing grid providers. Electricity grids widely apply gases for insulation in switchgears that are environmentally harmful: man-made fluorinated gases, or F-gases. 

F-gases have been regulated in the EU for decades. The key legislation, the so-called EU F-Gas Regulation, is currently being revised and is calling for more restrictions on the use of F-gases in switchgear. 

An ambitious timeline

The timeline proposed by this regulation regarding F-gases in switchgear is ambitious but achievable. Siemens Energy already offers future-proof and environmentally friendly insulation alternatives that use clean air in combination with vacuum interruption technology. If we want to achieve climate targets with zero impact on global warming, we will need to more intensively work together to eliminate F-gases from our grids. Compromises would undo the hard work already being done. 

What gases are we talking about?

F-gases is a term used for a group of fluorinated gases that are applied in everything from refrigeration to pharmaceuticals and insulation. For electric grids, the most commonly applied F-gas is Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6). This gas is mostly used in switchgear devices that do everything from switching to isolating electricity in a power system.

These gases work well as insulators but are intensely damaging to the environment. SF6, for example, has a global warming potential (GWP) 25,200 times higher than that of CO2. That means a single gram SF6in the atmosphere can do as much damage as 25kg of CO2. It also stays in the atmosphere for about 3,200 years.

Thankfully, there are alternatives. It's possible to switch and insulate with CO2, or with a vacuum and compressed treated air, which is cleaned of particulates. The world’s first order for this kind of switchgear took place in 2018, when Siemens Energy supplied Norwegian utility BKK Nett with a gas-insulated switchgear for a substation in Bergen.

“Our interest in SF6-free switchgear technology comes from a genuine commitment to sustainability and the practical need to avoid problems in the future,” Jens Skår, Division Manager at BKK Nett said. “Someone has to take the first step.”

Alternatives are already available today

Thanks to the increasing availability of F-gas free alternatives, along with the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases, regulation of F-gases has accelerated in the past few years.

The most important international regulation dates back to 2016 when the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was signed. 

The agreement added hydrofluorocarbons (HCFs), of which F-gases are a type, to a list of chemicals that countries need to reduce and phase out. For most industrialized countries, the agreement commits them to reduce HCFs by 45 percent by 2024, and by 85 percent by 2036 compared to 2011-2013 levels. The European Union and 132 more states have ratified the amendment.

The US has not yet ratified the Kigali Amendment, but has promised to do so. In the absence of that signature, individual states have adopted their own regulations to reduce F-gases, and other types of HCFs. 

California has been leading the charge. In 2006, the state committed itself to reduce the emissions from a range of greenhouse gases, including HCFs, back to 1990 levels by 2020. The targets were reached in 2016. In March 2022, California State Senator Nancy Skinner submitted a bill that would task the state’s Air Resources Board with developing a proposal to transition away from HCFs to natural refrigerants by 2035.

The state recognized early that regulation needed to not just address avoiding leaks, but go further and reduce the use of SF6 in electrical grids. "The emissions of SF6 into the atmosphere have not gone down in California even though we have tightened up on our leak rates," Tom Rak, the former manager of substation and T-Line standards engineering at California utility PG&E said. "It simply has to do with the fact there is just so much new SFgoing on to the grid that the volume of emissions has not gone down."

Technical solutions to replace SF6 with natural gases that have a GWP smaller than 10 exist.

A rapid phase-out needed

The EU is now going a step further. In April 2022, the EU Commission proposed a revision of the F-Gas Regulation. It would reduce F-gases by 90 percent by 2050, and ban using F-gases in switchgears with a GWP of more than 10 by 2026 to 2031 (high-voltage), depending on the voltage of the switchgear. It also allows for flexibility for niche situations where F-gas-free alternatives might not be available.

"With the electrification of our energy system, a rapid phase-out of SFis more urgent than ever,” Bas Eickhout, the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Vice Chair said in an interview with The Parliament Magazine

What grid operators and vendors are saying

These regulations are being welcomed by those in the industry as a bold way to achieve carbon neutrality and foster innovation. By eliminating F-gases where they’re not needed, and avoiding substitutions that are equally harmful, the regulations open up the door for progressive solutions. 

In November 2021, ten of the largest manufacturers, including Siemens Energy, signed a joint statement where they committed to delivering equipment that was F-gas free, and called on others to do the same. They wrote, “The first F-gas free products are successfully in operation. These products will help deliver our own company health and climate commitments while enabling environmental improvements.”

An important point for the grid operators and manufacturers is that the portfolio gaps that still exist be filled as quickly as possible. The easiest way to do that is to build on common intellectual property and avoid OEM-specific limitations. The easier it is for grids to implement F-gas-free solutions from all vendors in their grids, the more readily the technology will be adopted.

“When it comes to global warming, we are now past the point where compromise solutions are acceptable,” according to Dr. Ulf Katschinski, Senior Vice President of Switching Products at Siemens Energy. “We need zero: zero greenhouse gases, zero global warming impact and zero health impact.”

The focus now is on developing F-gas-free switchgear for all voltage levels over the next decade. Only by sticking to the commitments set out by existing and upcoming F-gas-regulations will the EU climate goals be reached.

SF6-free gas-insulated switchgear with clean air and vacuum technology.

How long before we are F-gas free?

The amount of F-gases and HCFs placed in the market has steadily declined in Europe from 2015 to 2019. Current estimates see the EU getting close to being F-gas free by around 2050. Today, there are still niche applications and high voltage levels where F-gases can’t be avoided, and global warming is increasing the demand for air conditioning and refrigeration, two areas where F-gases are also used.

Crucially, reducing F-gases now buys precious time to further develop climate-protective solutions in other areas, according to US senator Nancy Skinner

The bill she has submitted “will buy us precious time in our fight to protect the climate by cutting emissions of the powerful but short-lived pollutants used in refrigerators and air conditioners,” Skinner said in a statement. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special report27 concluded that emission decreases for fluorinated greenhouse gases of up to 90% by 2050 globally compared to the year 2015 would be needed.

The EU F-gas policy must be seen in the context of the recent IPCC Special report3. Pathways to limit global warming at 1.5 °C require emission decreases for F-gases of up to 90% by 2050 globally compared to the year 2015. Manufacturers are working to develop more clean alternatives that can be used even in the most niche cases. If they succeed, an F-gas-free future might only be a few decades away.

March, 2023 (updated version); August, 2022 (first publication)

Oliver Sachgau is a Berlin-based German-Canadian financial writer. His work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Fortune, and the Independent.

Combined picture and video credits: Siemens Energy