Industry Article

Specifying Power Products Using Standardized Green Credentials

November 19, 2023 by Paolo Perani, ABB

Standardization is needed so engineers can better assess a product’s environmental performance. Here’s how.

Power industry product specification and purchasing have changed significantly over the past few years, with sustainability increasingly considered along with price, performance, functionality, and reliability.


Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


Green credentials are widely and easily available from most manufacturers to help engineers make the most sustainable choices. When reviewing this information, it’s important to know what is (and isn’t) covered, how accurate it is, and how these assessments could be improved to help engineers make more informed decisions. 

Although the use phase makes up a considerable part of a product lifecycle, it’s important to consider sustainability from cradle to grave (i.e., from raw material extraction to end of life) to make more educated choices about how products impact the planet and its resources. 


Lifecycle Assessments

Lifecycle assessments (LCA) are the tools needed to map the impact of the entire life span of a specific product, from extracting and processing its component raw materials to the energy and resources used in manufacturing to the emissions generated by transporting it to the customer. Once installed, the LCA calculates the losses accrued during the product’s operational life or use phase. The assessment concludes with the end-of-life impact, including how the product is disposed of and how much can be recycled or reused.

The scope of these assessments can be huge. Take, for example, a medium-voltage (MV) primary air-insulated switchgear panel and all the materials used to build it. Steel makes up the majority of the mass balance—nearly 600 kg. On average, a five-door car weighs 900 kg. The remaining main components include epoxy resin, copper, and thermoplastics. All these materials must be processed, bent, cut, thermally treated, surface treated, and shipped from various locations, so this must be accounted for. 

Some products integrate components manufactured in different parts of the world. An MV primary distribution air-insulated switchgear will require current transformers, a circuit breaker with its own internal components, and a relay, with all of these devices coming from different locations. The assumptions considered while calculating each component's production and use phase must be aligned throughout the entire product supply chain so information must be exchanged seamlessly with other sites. 

Compiling this data takes time and effort and needs to be done accurately. To properly calculate the environmental aspects of every phase, manufacturers use a globally recognized tool called SimaPro. All contributing emissions are collected starting with the bill of materials and considering information gathered from suppliers and the manufacturing organization. The result can be visualized in a Sankey diagram, where the thickness of the lines is relevant to the importance of the specific contribution, and the biggest environmental impact can be seen at a glance. 


Environmental Product Declarations

Once complete, manufacturers use the LCA to prepare a detailed Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) about the product’s environmental performance. The internationally recognized EPD system provides data on a range of products and services and is a transparent and thorough assessment of sustainability credentials' positive and negative elements.  

EPDs are issued in tiers. Type one is an eco-label that evaluates a product’s environmental quality and is awarded by an approved third-party program. In Europe, for example, it is the European Union Ecolabel.  

Type two is a self-declared label created by manufacturers to make environmental claims about a product—for example, whether it is recyclable at the end of its use phase.

With type three, all models, calculations, and assumptions made by a manufacturer must be verified by a third-party verifier, typically a lifecycle analysis professional. Once this professional has verified the LCA report’s accuracy, the EPD can be registered with a program operator and published. This is the most robust certification available.


Comparing Like Products

Lifecycle assessment studies analyze all the different phases of a product's life on a common scale, providing valuable information to engineers. However, it is impossible to quickly compare the EPD of two different products as there are too many differences among them and too many assumptions that need to be validated. Essentially, you aren’t comparing apples to apples.

For example, ABB calculated the carbon footprint of the same product, a UniGear 12 KV 1250 A and 25 kA, but with different product category rules. The first was calculated considering 20 years of operation in France (with a relevant portion of nuclear energy used to produce electricity) of switchgear operating at 30 percent of its nominal current rating for 24 hours daily. In this case, the overall emissions of the UniGear panel would be less than 9 tonnes of CO2, with a use phase of 48 percent. 

ABB took the same panel and, instead of installing it in France, installed it in Germany and ran it with a load factor of 80 percent for 30 years. The emissions would be 65 tonnes of CO2, with the use phase representing 93 percent of the entire lifecycle. This aptly demonstrates the need to identify and consider important assumptions behind every environmental product declaration to ensure the documents are comparable in reality.


Image used courtesy of ABB


While the outcome of LCAs depends heavily on the materials manufacturers purchase, where the products are installed, and how they are used, they are also influenced by design. 

Let us compare an existing switchgear product with one from a newer product family currently in development, where the gas compartment size has been reduced, the main current path shortened, and the recyclability improved. This more sustainable design will reduce stainless steel usage by 15 percent and copper by 30 percent, all while reducing the electric path to cut power losses by around 30 percent. 

Let’s now consider two ABB Unigear panels of the same rating, used with the same product category rule (installed in the same location and used in the same way) and fit one with current transformers and one with sensors. The power losses of the panel equipped with sensors are drastically reduced. For 10 Unigear panels, operators could save the same amount of electricity three average Italian families used within the same time frame.


Image used courtesy of ABB


New Global IEC Standard

While comparing power products, we have to take a detailed and holistic approach to calculate how they are designed, manufactured, used, and installed to record the resource use and emissions generated accurately. 

To make EPDs more uniform and allow for greater comparability, ABB and its European industry association propose a new global IEC standard to help engineers and other specifiers assess the environmental performance of different products.

A consultation about improving the IEC standards for high-voltage switchgear and control gear went out to the industry in March 2023 and closed in June. The drafting committee is reviewing the comments received, and the findings will be published at the beginning of 2024. Hopefully, there will be a leveling of the playing field, making product performance more comparable.