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Switching gears to a circular, sustainable approach to modern power management

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Stewart Gregory, VP, Power Products at Schneider Electric, explains how modern power management technology can benefit from adopting a circular economy. 

In the face of climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource scarcity, the need for a green revolution to reduce waste is fundamental to a sustainable future. 

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the circular economy as a way of tackling the industry’s waste challenge. This traditional linear model of production and consumption, often referred to as ‘take-make-waste,’ is simply not sustainable in the long term. 

In circular economies, sharing, reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, and recycling are key. By extending the life cycles of products and materials, manufacturers can reduce overall waste, while realising other business-critical benefits, such as lowering costs and increasing uptime.

Solutions that fit the scale of the problems

The benefits of moving to a circular economy are numerous, including reducing environmental pollution, creating jobs, boosting the economy, and saving resources. For many manufacturers, the benefits of it are coming to life within vital electrical distribution system upgrades. Traditionally costly and disruptive to operations, by adopting circular economy principles, manufacturers are increasingly retrofitting low-voltage (LV) and medium-voltage (MV) electrical distribution switchgear to ensure the longevity of equipment while also reducing waste.

Innovative approaches now allow manufacturers to replace ageing and obsolete MV/LV switchgear components more easily (e.g., power circuit breakers, contactors, protection relays, and fuse devices) with modern upgrades while maintaining aspects of the original design. Since retrofitting solutions replace only a portion of the existing electrical equipment, fewer waste materials must be processed compared to a complete replacement. For example, retrofitting a circuit breaker unit inside the switchgear avoids manufacturing new cubicles, busbars, cables, and accessories in electrical distribution.

Retrofitting practices can include reusing switchgear housings and accessories, such as plugs, lights, LV switches, and extra LV cabinets and preserving viable cables and wires. Where components are obsolete, they can be refurbished or recycled. Retrofits minimise and simplify construction work resulting in faster installation, less human error, and fewer hours of costly production downtime. Compared to installing new equipment, retrofitting switchgear can result in environmental and cost savings of between 40% and 65%.

Circular-inspired modernisation; why now?

Our urgent need to address climate change is just one of the convincing reasons manufacturing must favour such circular approaches. The likelihood of unplanned and costly downtime increases daily as internal electrical systems are put through their paces. In addition, as the global utility power supply becomes more unstable, internal electrical systems are subjected to more wear and tear. Alongside issues such as equipment phase-outs, rising maintenance costs and new regulatory requirements, modernisation is more often a question of when – not if.

In this drive to modernisation, facility owners and managers must juggle competing priorities; the need for cost-effectiveness, optimum uptime, health and safety, and sustainability. All these aspects are relevant when it comes to electrical distribution, the lifeblood of the facility. Malfunctions in the system rupture processes with unplanned downtime, resulting in higher costs and sometimes even threats to safety.

Helping the business with sustainable prevention

Prevention is always better than cure. Modernising electrical systems is part of a healthy, preventative strategy that delivers holistic benefits. For example, modernisation should include the digitalisation of assets when retrofitting systems. Equipment upgrades now mean the integration of low-cost sensors connected to the cloud. Feeding equipment data into analytics programmes delivers rich insights that improve performance and efficiency, decrease energy costs, and reduce CO2 emissions.

Crucially, digitalisation as part of a modernisation programme ensures manufacturers can evidence the impact of their efforts, both in terms of sustainability gains and to ensure cost-savings and efficiencies are genuinely being realised.

Manufacturers can realise multifaceted benefits by modernising power systems underpinned by an appreciation of the circular economy. Industrial leaders now view sustainability as an investment. They can realise short and long-term advantages and are hungry to embrace innovative programmes that support waste reduction in all its forms. They are looking for expert partners to bring these ambitious programmes to life in pragmatic and practical ways.

Stewart Gregory

VP Power Products at Schneider Electric UK&I

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