Matt Brough, substation section manager at Burns & McDonnell Energy networks, Network Excellence, Comment, National Grid, Asset management, net zero, Innovate networks, Assets, Energy flexibility

Changes to energy consumption patterns and the increasing prevalence of renewables will require more agile transmission and distribution infrastructure. Matt Brough of Burns & McDonnell looks at the role modular substations can play in this mix.

In a bold demonstration of the UK leveraging innovations to meet its net-zero targets, in May 2021 National Grid unveiled plans to install modular technology at several of its substations in the north of England — claimed to be a world first.

Modular substations offer increased efficiency and flexibility and are an important component in achieving balance between the schedule and load/generation constraints needed to meet demand. This will be particularly crucial as the UK increases its reliance on renewable energy, and demand for electricity continues to rise.

The unpredictable nature of renewable energy sources, combined with changing consumption habits, will necessitate new and flexible transmission and distribution infrastructure to meet demand and effectively utilise the energy generated.

Modular substations have a variety of benefits for network operators, renewables developers, and others looking to implement a flexible solution.

Rapid, cost-effective deployment

Modular substations are designed to be a quickly deployable, cost-effective connection solution. The unit design for fully mobile solutions, on the other hand, is often expensive, has overall design and transport constraints, and doesn’t work well as a permanent solution. This is largely due to the design and construction techniques used.

Alternatively, permanent, stick-built substations require significant field construction time and have limited flexibility to scale with load/generation growth, resulting in a restricted ability to redeploy equipment while controlling costs.

Utilising premanufactured and assembled equipment with minimal foundation work, a modular substation can be quickly assembled and easily deployed for a reduced construction schedule.

Additionally, safety hazards are minimised as the team spends less time in the field constructing necessary units, which can be difficult amid adverse weather conditions.

Adaptable to fluctuating supply and demand

The advent of electric vehicles and the anticipated rise in the use of electricity for heating homes represent two significant changes in energy use which the grid will need to accommodate.

The flexibility afforded by modular substations will ensure the grid is prepared to respond to the dips and spikes in demand and supply which are inevitable on the road to net zero carbon.

The flexibility of modular substations increases by leveraging skid-mounted solutions that transport the assets on movable platforms to meet high-voltage connection needs and energy demands, with a reduced project delivery schedule.

The solution’s ability to scale up and down pairs especially well with renewable energy projects that demand high-voltage connection capabilities and the ability to adapt to fluctuating demand.

In the immediate term, the importance of flexibility has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. With commercial power needs declining due to working from home and residential demand increasing, these dips and spikes can be better managed by a modular substation.

Flexible, transportable infrastructure

Most modular substation equipment can be relocated to a new project site relatively easily — creating an adaptable solution that reduces abandoned costs and allows for longer asset life spans.

Bays can be added to support future energy demands, whether that load changes due to fluctuating residential patterns or an increased need for solar and wind power, to provide reliable service for both residents and businesses.

With movable assets that can easily be deployed from site to site allowing for project relocation, modular substations offer flexible and scalable solutions to meet unique needs. They are designed and manufactured to adapt to fluctuating demand and accommodate unique connection requirements.

Modular substations will support a net zero UK

Modular substations are a natural fit for a zero-carbon grid. Providing increased efficiency and flexibility, combined with rapid deployment and easy transportation, they will be an increasingly important tool in the energy sector’s infrastructure arsenal as reliance on renewables and electricity demand grow in the years to come.

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