Transforming technology from then to now

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Two centuries after the humble transformer was invented, Anthony Hall, senior transformer designer and engineer at Bowers Electricals, looks at how far technology has come...

In 1831, Michael Faraday conducted a series of experiments that effectively demonstrated the principle of electromagnetic induction.

Even though Faraday’s invention contained all the basic elements i.e. two independent coils and a closed iron core, it would be more than 50 years before the first transformer appeared. Since then, there has been relatively little change in concept, but advancements in the design and construction have ensured that the ubiquitous ‘grey box’ remains an essential component in today’s energy networks.

Transformers now form part of virtually every electric energy generation, transmission and distribution system. By enabling the location of power generation vast distances away from the point of consumption, they’ve influenced the electricity industry to an immeasurable degree.

Across the increasingly competitive transformer market, from small independent manufacturers to large multi-national companies, the biggest challenge has been the development of transformers with increased capacity, reduced dimensions and greater reliability. And regardless of whether key active components are outsourced from accredited third party suppliers or the transformer is manufactured in-house from raw materials, the cost must always be competitive. 

The advent of Ecodesign regulations across the EU has resulted in stringent requirements to achieve greater energy savings on transformers placed into service from the middle of this year. A challenge of equal importance to the energy industry in general is the need to integrate renewable sources. Rapidly increasing as the worldwide demand for electricity grows, renewable energy requirements’ use of smart grid technology, monitoring and diagnostic applications continues to change how the industry tackles the way it produces and maintains its products. Arguably this has been a key factor in driving transformer technology forward, resulting in the more progressive manufacturers offering a ‘grey box’ that now has significantly more to offer than some may think.

Glancing across our company car park it would be easy to dismiss the two 4x4 vehicles that are parked up as petrol-guzzling behemoths belonging to more insouciant times, but appearances can be deceptive and these impressive new hybrid electric vehicles are capable of almost 150mpg. No less impressive is Bowers’ solution for voltage regulation distribution, which is unique amongst the competition as being completely designed and manufactured in the UK. The Bowers Intellivolt® utilises the fourth-generation solid-state voltage optimisation technology of specialist’s iVolt, combined with a Bowers Electricals low loss energy saving transformer. This recent addition to the market becomes a hybrid itself – a voltage regulating distribution transformer (VRDT). 

The Bowers Intellivolt is the only British-manufactured VRDT to employ an intelligent variable device with iVolt patented IRT energy monitoring technology and cloud-based measuring system. The closed loop feedback system takes more than 3,000 measurements per second, enabling the control unit to maximise the energy savings, using unique micro-processor, thyristor and transformer technology to ensure that the output voltage is stable and optimised for maximum energy saving.

This type of control is particularly useful in grids where there are large numbers of decentralised feed-ins to the low-voltage range as it is capable of detecting whether current is being fed into the upstream medium voltage grid via the VRDT, subsequently adapting the control response accordingly.

The German utility E.ON already has 60 voltage-regulated distribution transformers online and will treble this number by the end of 2015. The German Energy Agency estimates that voltage-regulated distribution transformers could reduce the cost of network expansion by around €1.4 billion between now and 2030 in low voltage networks alone. 

As a reliable, cost-effective technology achieving an energy supply that is secure, affordable, and environmentally friendly, hybrid transformers like the Intellivolt® can make a significant contribution to expanding distributed generation enabling network operators to integrate renewables into their distribution networks at a significantly reduced cost.

Along with Bowers Electricals other manufacturers across Europe such as Siemens, ABB, MR, Rauscher & Stoecklin, Magtech and Schneider are offering an ever-increasing range of adaptable distribution transformers, electrical voltage regulators and self-regulating distribution transformers to meet these new demands. In 2013 a CIRED roundtable discussion suggested there was ‘no single good solution’ to voltage control in distribution grids, and although the way forward is still not fully determined it is clear that VRDTs are an emerging technology that many users are considering as their most cost effective and practical solution; in much the same way that hybrid fuel technologies could be one answer to the problems posed by conventional cars.

For Faraday, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th Century that Bláthy, Déri and Zipernowsky would use his discovery to create one of the first ring-shaped transformers. More than a century later, this humble creation still forms the basis of the latest smart transformer. And it will continue to make a significant contribution to energy generation, transmission and distribution systems for many years to come.

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