Over the last decades, the fight to control global warming has grown in momentum. Although we still have a long way to go, progress is being made. Many nations have embraced CO2 reduction targets across the globe, and innovations, such as circular electrical systems, are reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. Circular electrical systems use electrical distribution components that maintain a low carbon footprint, are suitable for reuse and redeployment, and demonstrate a high degree of recyclability at the end of life.
As part of a more aggressive sustainability push, many organizations are now prioritizing the creation of circular processes within their operations. In this way, each individual company helps to contribute to what is rapidly developing into a more robust circular economy. Circularity offers a way to decouple economic growth from the consumption of finite resources. At Schneider Electric, contributing to a circular economy means redesigning products to eliminate waste and transitioning to innovative business models focused on reuse, refurbishment, and renovation. One of the ways we embrace circularity is by creating electrical system technologies that extend the useful life of our customers’ circular electrical system assets. Embracing the bigger picture of circularity is a way for all industries to increase their profitability while reducing their dependence on natural resources.
Take, for example, the piles of electrical waste generated by businesses and individual consumers that end up in our landfills each year. When components are built to be easy to repair instead of easy to throw away, raw materials are conserved and experience an extended useful life. Since many of us own or lease a car, we know that if the vehicle stops running, we don’t necessarily ask the local garage to take it away to the scrap heap. Most of us perform regular maintenance on the car to extend the length of our initial investment. Spare parts are in plentiful supply, and those parts don’t necessarily have to come from the original manufacturer. Even when the car finally reaches the end of life, many of its parts can be reprocessed and used to repair other similar vehicles. Like a car, the life of electrical system components like switchgear, circuit breakers, and transformers can be extended, significantly reducing electrical waste.
Repair solutions are an important circular economy trend that companies adopt to reduce their carbon footprint and save costs on raw materials. Without spare parts readily available, industrial equipment requiring simple repairs has had to be replaced by expensive new equipment. Repair solutions that embrace more innovative spare parts strategies offer a much more affordable alternative for companies while contributing to circularity.
Multiple strategies help drive circular electrical system approaches
Sharing products among multiple customers and prolonging product life spans through maintenance and design are important aspects of Schneider Electric’s electrical systems circularity strategy. This is particularly true in our Low Voltage (LV) and Medium Voltage (MV) power distribution product groups. Our power distribution equipment customers want to preserve their initial investments and contribute to the planet’s sustainability. They are strongly encouraging us to develop more recovery services offerings. Our modernization services are designed to help customers with electrical assets to prolong the life of those assets through combinations of reuse, refurbishment, and recycling processes.
When working with customers, we take several actions that enable circular electrical system maintenance for electrical equipment such as switchgear, transformers, and circuit breakers:
- More circular equipment design – Our research and development (R&D) labs are now ensuring that each new product we introduce into the marketplace is designed to be easily repaired. By combining our long-established “Green Premium” approach (a design methodology using materials that promote maximum recyclability) with “designed for circularity” best practices, we prioritize new products that are much more reusable and renewable as opposed to having to be entirely replaced.
- Condition-based maintenance – Repairability is a strong lever for delivering and increasing circularity. By designing equipment to make it easy to fix, fewer errors occur. Condition-based maintenance (CBM) is a maintenance method which enables the anticipation of possible failures and the adjustment of equipment prior to having those possible failures lead to unplanned downtime. In a CBM scenario, electrical panels, transformers, and switchgear are equipped with sensors and connect to a cloud-based system, which allows power systems to be remotely managed 24/7 by a team of experts. Such approaches can extend manufacturer maintenance intervals up to 2 years, compared to a traditional maintenance plan. By instrumenting new and existing electrical assets, high-precision predictions can be made on when and how to repair assets. This results in lower overall maintenance costs and reduced failure rates while extending the life of the existing assets. Utilizing a condition-based maintenance approach, Nestle Nescafe avoided three unplanned stoppages (at a cost of $52,000 an hour per stoppage) in just the first year of implementation.
- Installed base modernization – Instead of the wholesale replacement of electrical systems, critical equipment can be “refreshed” and modernized. Schneider Electric has been at the forefront of electrical equipment revitalization with its Ecofit Revive and Refresh services. For example, in the case of Medium Voltage (MV) equipment, only the active equipment components need upgrading, leaving the original framework intact. The result is a digitally enabled asset and installed base with an extended life span. By applying these principles, in addition to cost optimization, sustainable benefits are quantified on both material and, ultimately, CO2. Through MV network modernization, the global steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal Belval was able to save 15-20% in asset replacement costs while reducing downtime by 5-10%.
- Second life for “end of use” assets – Programs and services are being implemented by global vendors like Schneider Electric to provide a manufacturer’s warranty on products and equipment that have been returned, regardless of the reason for those returns. Those refurbished assets are then offered a second life providing business value to other customers. For example, steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal Belval was able to retrofit temperature and hygrometry sensors in 13 existing switchgear to help bolster condition monitoring performance.
- Reinventing the current spare parts paradigm – The circularity approach also offers new opportunities for reusing sub-assemblies and spares that ensure an even longer life for older ranges of medium voltage gear. A company like Schneider Electric works from an installed base of tens of thousands of these units across the globe. This base represents a vast source of potential spare parts. By tracking and managing the recovery of this installed base equipment, spare parts can be extracted and redistributed to customers who need them.
Recycling and recovery services are key sustainability and cost-saving drivers
The waste-to-resource circular loop is not the only critical enabler that drives the cost and efficiency benefits highlighted above. Recycling and recovery services also help to increase material resilience by helping to better manage resource volatility and scarcity. By deploying a more systematic approach to accepting “end of use” equipment and adopting new attitudes regarding re-use, professional recycling of materials serves as the final step in the circular loop. Companies like Schneider Electric are now stepping up their abilities to accept used assets, not only for a second life but also to guarantee professional-level recycling in a safe and sustainable manner (including the proper handling and disposal of SF6 gas).
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Corporate boards are increasing their commitment and investment in circularity. Most recognize that acquiring raw materials will become much more difficult in the coming years. The demand for materials is far outstripping supply projections. The solution to this dilemma lies in developing more circular solutions and introducing processes that contribute to cost control and carbon emissions reductions. However, no one organization can operate in a vacuum and make circularity work all by themselves. Developing a robust circular economy will require strong collaboration among internal and external partners to achieve the ultimate goal of a sustainable planet.
To learn more, download our new white paper written by MIT Technology Review, “How global businesses use insight and innovation to make their manufacturing processes and assets carbon neutral.“.