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Where technology, community and art intersect to shape a cleaner future

A substation in the Zurich power grid shows how sustainable technology can be both attractive and engaging for the local community

As you walk down the street in a northern suburb of Zurich, you might hear a substation whisper to you about clean energy. Bizarre?  It’s a work of art designed by Swiss artist, Yves Netzhammer, that also serves as an electricity provider for the residents of Oerlikon. The substation is owned by Swiss utility company, ewz, and has the potential to take the power grid a step closer to clean energy.

At the outset of the project, ewz organized a competition with the city of Zurich’s public art body. The winning artist, Netzhammer, successfully intersects technology and nature using lighting and mirrors to create a science-fiction feel.  The substation’s exterior has a large viewing window looking 15 meters underground into the inner workings of a new world. This prompts onlookers to be both inspired by the technology and to reflect on its future impact.

Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is used extensively in high and medium voltage switchgear, with excellent properties as an electric insulator and allows safe and reliable operation. However, it is a potent greenhouse gas that requires careful handling and can entail substantial costs to manage. The Oerlikon substation’s AirPlus™ switchgear uses a substitute gas for SF6.

The alternate gas, developed by ABB in collaboration with 3M, is a mixture of fluoroketones and components of air. It has a global warming potential almost 100 percent lower than that of SF6, along with an ozone depletion potential of zero. ABB has been developing low-carbon options for switchgear for a number of years and has multiple solutions including using carbon-dioxide as an SF6 alternative.

The new substation blends with the community landscape and is a pioneering project. The idea was that the new substation would use less space than an existing one. By deploying gas insulated switchgear technology which uses only 30 percent of the 5000 m2 space occupied by the original air insulated switchgear.

It is two years since the substation was first energized. The operational experience is excellent and AirPlus™ has fully matched performance expectations of high quality and stability.  This paves the way for future applications using a new sustainable technology, including for high and medium voltage switching.

Meanwhile, the substation design continues to attract the community and to win awards. Its bright viewing window prompts onlookers to be both inspired by the technology and to reflect on its future impact.The trailblazing project shows us how corporations can both engage with local communities and invest in research that offers sustainable alternatives to established technologies.

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