The Changing Landscape of SF6 Regulation – A Global Overview
Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) has been widely used for over 40 years in electrical transmission and distribution equipment due to its excellent electrical insulating and arc-quenching properties. However, the potent greenhouse gas nature of SF6, with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 23,500, has raised concerns about its environmental impact and potential health hazards. As a result, regulatory bodies around the world are implementing stricter regulations to minimize SF6 usage, improve containment measures, promote recycling, and develop alternative insulation technologies.
In this article, we aim to give you a picture of the state of SF6 regulation, across different regions—specifically the European Union (EU) the United States (U.S.A.) and Asia. We will delve into the health issues linked to SF6 examine the consequences of shifts and shed light on how the industry is addressing these concerns. So lets get started and explore all the intricacies.
Environmental and Health Concerns
While SF6 has been widely used in electrical applications, it poses environmental and health risks. SF6 is a potent greenhouse gas with a high GWP, contributing to climate change. Its long atmospheric lifetime and ability to trap heat make it a significant contributor to global warming. Additionally, SF6 can displace oxygen in confined spaces, leading to asphyxiation risks.
Leakage and emissions of SF6 from electrical equipment during installation, operation, and maintenance also contribute to its environmental impact. These emissions are subject to regulations and reporting requirements in many jurisdictions. The cost and energy intensity associated with SF6-based equipment, as well as the challenges of finding suitable alternatives, further highlight the need for regulatory changes and industry innovation.
Situation in the European Union (EU)
The European Union has been at the forefront of regulating SF6 emissions, recognizing its strong greenhouse effect. In 2014, the European Commission passed Regulation No 517/2014, known as the “2014 F-gas Regulation,” which included updated requirements for the use of SF6 in electrical switchgear. This regulation aimed to reduce SF6 emissions and promote the phase-out of SF6 in electric power systems.
The 2014 F-gas Regulation applies to all EU member states and defines electrical switchgear as “switching devices and their combination with associated control, measuring, protective and regulating equipment, and assemblies of such devices and equipment.” Operators of electrical switchgear are required to take measures to prevent emissions, including regular leak checks, record keeping, training and certification requirements, and proper labeling of equipment containing SF6.
On october 5th 2023, negotiators representing the Council of the EU and the European Parliament reached a provisional political agreement concerning the gradual reduction of substances responsible for global warming and ozone layer depletion. This development marks the conclusion of the revised EU F-gas Regulation, laying the groundwork for the elimination of F-gases within the European Union by the year 2050.
Highlights of the agreement reached in October 2023 on the revised EU F-Gas Regulation:
Transition Away from F-Gases in Switchgear
Notable aspect of the October 2023 agreement involves the gradual elimination of medium voltage switchgear dependent on F-gases. This phased approach, set to be completed by 2030, will be followed by a subsequent ban on high-voltage switchgear by 2032. This strategic move aims to promote the development of sustainable electric grids by curbing the use of SF6 and its fluorinated substitutes. The decision is crucial in preventing the degradation of these substances into PFAS (persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic forever chemicals) at the end of their life cycle, safeguarding both human health and the environment.
Situation in the United States
In the United States, SF6 regulation is primarily driven by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state-level environmental agencies. In 2009, the EPA made it mandatory for utilities to report large SF6 emissions. Subsequently, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (Mass DEP) strengthened their own SF6 regulations.
CARB, responsible for protecting the Californian public from air pollution, implemented regulations to track and report SF6 emissions from gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) in 2011. Massachusetts also implemented regulations requiring GIS owners to comply with SF6 leak rate limits. These regulations aim to reduce SF6 emissions and encourage the use of alternative technologies. CARB is also proposing regulatory changes to phase out the use of SF6 in gas insulated equipment (GIE) from 2025.
The 310 CMR 7.72 regulation is designed to mitigate SF6 emissions from gas-insulated switchgear (GIS). It mandates compliance for entities, including companies and municipalities, that own, lease, operate, or control GIS containing SF6 in Massachusetts. The regulation imposes a stringent maximum annual SF6 leak rate of 1 percent for GIS acquisitions made after 2015. In the event that the annual average leakage rate of the new GIS equipment surpasses 1 percent, GIS owners are obligated to outline the measures they will undertake to curtail future emission rates.
Situation in Asia
In Asia, there are no specific SF6 regulations targeting transmission and distribution operators. However, countries like Japan and South Korea have implemented measures to reduce SF6 emissions and track their annual emissions.
Japan, in its Fourth Biennial Report under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reported a significant decrease in SF6 emissions from the electric utilities sector, attributed to enhancements in gas recovery and management systems. While Japan does not have laws restricting the power sector’s use of SF6, switchgear OEMs and electric utilities have voluntarily committed to reducing emissions and improving SF6 inventory tracking.
South Korea, in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implemented a GHG Emissions Trading Scheme, which includes SF6. The country has experienced a significant increase in SF6 emissions due to the growth of various technology manufacturing subsectors. However, South Korea is actively building SF6 decomposition facilities to process and destroy SF6, aiming to reduce emissions and transition away from SF6.
The regulation of SF6 is evolving worldwide as governments and regulatory bodies recognize the environmental and health risks associated with its use. The European Union, the United States, and countries in Asia are implementing stricter regulations, including leak checks, record keeping, training requirements, and labeling of equipment containing SF6.
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As the global community continues to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the phased-out use of SF6 and the adoption of alternative technologies will play a crucial role in building a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future for the electrical industry.