A gas insulated substation (GIS) uses a superior dielectric gas, SF6, at moderate pressure for phase to phase and phase-to-ground insulation. The high voltage conductors, circuit breaker interrupters, switches, current transformers, and voltage transformers are in SF6 gas inside grounded metal enclosures.
Sulfur hexaflouride is an inert, non-toxic, colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-flammable gas consisting of a sulfur atom surrounded by and tightly bonded to six flourine atoms. It is about five times as dense as air. SF6 is used in GIS at pressures from 400 to 600 kPa absolute. The pressure is chosen so that the SF6 will not condense into a liquid at the lowest temperatures the equipment experiences.
SF6 has two to three times the insulating ability of air at the same pressure. SF6 is about one hundred times better than air for interrupting arcs. It is the universally used interrupting medium for high voltage circuit breakers, replacing the older mediums of oil and air.
SF6 decomposes in the high temperature of an electric arc, but the decomposed gas recombines back into SF6 so well that it is not necessary to replenish the SF6 in GIS. There are some reactive decomposition byproducts formed because of the trace presence of moisture, air, and other contaminants.
The quantities formed are very small. Molecular sieve absorbants inside the GIS enclosure eliminate these reactive byproducts. SF6 is supplied in 50-kg gas cylinders in a liquid state at a pressure of about 6000 kPa for convenient storage and transport. .
Gas handling systems with filters, compressors, and vacuum pumps are commercially available. Best practices and the personnel safety aspects of SF6 gas handling are covered in international standards (IEC, 1995).
The SF6 in the equipment must be dry enough to avoid condensation of moisture as a liquid on the surfaces of the solid epoxy support insulators because liquid water on the surface can cause a dielectric breakdown. However, if the moisture condenses as ice, the breakdown voltage is not affected. So dew points in the gas in the equipment need to be below about –10°C. For additional margin, levels of less than 1000 ppmv of moisture are usually specified and easy to obtain with careful gas handling.
Absorbants inside the GIS enclosure help keep the moisture level in the gas low, even though over time, moisture will evolve from the internal surfaces and out of the solid dielectric materials (IEEE Std. 1125-1993). Small conducting particles of mm size significantly reduce the dielectric strength of SF6 gas.
This effect becomes greater as the pressure is raised past about 600 kPa absolute (Cookson and Farish, 1973). The particles are moved by the electric field, possibly to the higher field regions inside the equipment or deposited along the surface of the solid epoxy support insulators, leading to dielectric breakdown at operating voltage levels.
Cleanliness in assembly is therefore very important for GIS. Fortunately, during the factory and field power frequency high voltage tests, contaminating particles can be detected as they move and cause small electric discharges (partial discharge) and acoustic signals, so they can be removed by opening the equipment.
Some GIS equipment is provided with internal “particle traps” that capture the particles before they move to a location where they might cause breakdown. Most GIS assemblies are of a shape that provides some “natural” low electric field regions where particles can rest without causing problems.
SF6 is a strong greenhouse gas that could contribute to global warming. At an international treaty conference in Kyoto in 1997, SF6 was listed as one of the six greenhouse gases whose emissions should be reduced. SF6 is a very minor contributor to the total amount of greenhouse gases due to human activity, but it has a very long life in the atmosphere (half-life is estimated at 3200 years), so the effect of SF6 released to the atmosphere is effectively cumulative and permanent.
The major use of SF6 is in electrical power equipment. Fortunately, in GIS the SF6 is contained and can be recycled. By following the present international guidelines for use of SF6 in electrical equipment (Mauthe et al., 1997), the contribution of SF6 to global warming can be kept to less than 0.1% over a 100-year horizon.
The emission rate from use in electrical equipment has been reduced over the last three years. Most of this effect has been due to simply adopting better handling and recycling practices. Standards now require GIS to leak less than 1% per year. The leakage rate is normally much lower. Field checks of GIS in service for many years indicate that the leak rate objective can be as low as 0.1% per year when GIS standards are revised.