How CERN research lab uses innovative oil-filled transformer monitoring to reduce operational risks

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As I’ve mentioned previously, oil-filled transformer downtime seriously impacts multiple domains, from electrical generation to consumers. CERN, the famous European Organization for Nuclear Research, is no exception. Transformer monitoring is a priority, and they need help to analyze the health of their aging transformers, optimize maintenance and replacement plans, and minimize operational risks.

The impacts of oil-filled transformer failures are not restricted to business continuity. They also impact finance and electrical safety. When a transformer is located at a large or critical energy user facility, as is the case for CERN, its reliability is essential to the operation’s continuity and economic stability.

Transformer monitoring and reliability are essential for large or critical energy user facilities to ensure continuity and reduce operational risks.

The challenge for critical operations using transformers

Engineers design transformers to last for decades, but their failure rate increases after 30 years. Beyond the downtime impact on critical operations, replacing a failed oil-filled transformer dramatically impacts an organization’s CAPEX. This fact highlights the importance of planning to avoid forced, reactive decisions.

For example, a few years ago, a transformer failure caused a 6-hour power cut to over 100 lab buildings at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the USA. Such an interruption – even briefly – can have enormous consequences for scientific research projects. In addition, government funding and limited operational budgets make it crucial for these facilities to get the most performance and lifespan out of their electrical distribution assets. 

Determining when transformer maintenance is required and the ideal time for replacement poses a challenge. As explained in my previous post, heat and moisture are the major factors that accelerate insulation aging inside an oil-filled transformer. Determining transformer health requires an accurate analysis of these and other factors.

Without accurate transformer analysis, there can be a lack of oil-filled transformer maintenance and unexpected failures. On the other hand, an organization could overcompensate with more conservative asset management. Consequently, organizations overspend on retiring and replacing transformers early, sometimes years before the end of their useful lifespan.

So what is the solution? Let’s look at how CERN successfully resolved this dilemma.

CERN chooses innovative transformer monitoring technology

CERN is one of the world’s largest scientific centers of research. Scientists from around the globe use advanced particle physics equipment at CERN to study the nature of the universe.

With so many important people and projects operating at CERN, the continuous availability of its facilities is critical. And as the site uses an astounding 1.3 terawatt hours of electricity annually, its transformers are critical to that reliability.

Giuseppe Cappai, High Voltage Maintenance Manager for CERN, was concerned that many of those transformers were over 30 years old. He needed to determine which ones he could refurbish to extend their lifespan. For those needing a complete replacement, he needed a better way to anticipate and manage end-of-life, prioritizing the investments.

The traditional Dissolved Gas Analysis (DGA) method was not giving him enough insights to make these decisions. So, Giuseppe engaged Schneider Electric to start a one-year pilot program using EcoStruxure™ Transformer Expert technology.

This easy-to-deploy, 24/7 oil-filled transformer monitoring solution comprises an IoT sensor, wireless communications, and cloud-based analytics software. It goes beyond previous methods by uniquely correlating temperature, moisture in oil, vibration, and partial discharge trends. It also performs age profiling at the transformer’s top, bottom, and hotspot. With this information, the software automatically analyzes these factors to determine each transformer’s insulation and operating risk. Then, it recommends best practice management – including preventive maintenance of transformers.

They deployed this all-in-one sensors and smart analytics solution to one of CERN’s medium-sized substation transformers, which was 36 years old. The pilot was a success, and the answer was then quickly deployed on more transformers. The analysis provided by EcoStruxure Transformer Expert is helping Giuseppe’s team monitor the behavior of all transformers, analyze risk, and optimize oil-filled transformer maintenance and replacement plans. These critical assets are now better managed, with downtime risks reduced.

An evolving range of transformer analytics capabilities

Giuseppe worked closely with Schneider Electric services during the pilot project and recommended incorporating a configurable sensor temperature offset in the EcoStruxure Transformer Expert software. The Schneider Electric team implemented this feature soon after, which Giuseppe appreciated. “The relationship with the Schneider Electric Services team has been great. You have listened and responded to my suggestions. I feel we are on a journey together to solve problems and really appreciated the fast response from the team,” Giuseppe said.

This is just one example of collaborative win-win relationships with our customers.

In addition, our R&D team is continuing to introduce new, integrated capabilities for oil-filled transformer monitoring solutions. 

This includes optional hydrogen monitoring and tracking by leveraging a hydrogen sensor certified by FM Global. It helps identify hydrogen, the key early warning gas for issues occurring in transformers.​​

Apart from sensors-as-a-service, two other options are available:

  •  EcoStruxure Transformer Expert Essential: With software-as-a-service, customers can upload and store their offline dissolved-gas analysis (DGA) reports, get initial insights and analytics about their transformers, and prioritize high-risk equipment for closer monitoring and replacement planning, if needed. 
  • Integrated into an EcoCare membership, next-generation service plan: Schneider Electric services will perform advanced condition-based monitoring for the customer and provide support and insights to improve transformers performance and core electrical distribution equipment in a customer’s installation. 

To learn more about EcoStruxure Transformer Expert, visit our website.

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