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Specialist Materials for Industry and Science

Feature: Talking about Resilience? First take a look inside your transformer

Feature: Talking about Resilience? First take a look inside your transformer


By Barry Menzies, Managing Director, MIDEL Dielectric Fluids Global

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‘Resilience’ as a business concept is currently on the minds of many C-level executives as well as in the headlines of business media. To us Brits, ‘resilience’ brings to mind the stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’, but all around the world resilience is growing as a crucial requirement for our businesses, cities and even societies.

It makes sense: climate change brings us more extreme weather events, growing urban populations place additional strain on power infrastructure and increasing commercial pressures mean that businesses cannot afford any downtime. ‘Resilience’ in this context is about the importance of both preventing, and bouncing back from, catastrophes.

While there are many moving parts involved in improving resilience, let’s consider for a moment the electrical transformer, and specifically the dielectric fluid that goes into it.

Transforming resilience

Transformers are critical infrastructure assets – really the unsung heroes of our modern day lives. They keep the lights on, keep the production lines running and keep everything from hospitals and schools to airports and stock markets open. They quietly get on with the task of regulating and safely distributing electricity into our homes and businesses. However, they can go wrong and when they do it’s not just that the lights can go out, there can also be significant danger. Transformer fires can be violent and deadly (burning mineral oil is notoriously hard to extinguish, see here for a recent example), especially in densely populated areas. 

So an important way to increase resilience is to mitigate transformer risk, and to make the situation less dangerous if/when they do fail. This is where ester transformer fluids can help.

As an alternative dielectric fluid to mineral oil, ester fluids have far higher fire points. So, if something does go wrong – be it an electrical fault or deliberate damage - they remove the risk of a fire

But ester fluids can also make a transformer more robust by extending asset life and making it healthier. As a healthy person is better able to fend off illness, so a healthy transformer is better able to cope with the strain of extreme or atypical conditions. As intermittent renewables increase supply fluctuations and electric vehicles increase demand, this is likely to become more important as we transition to a ‘Smart Grid’ world.

Esters are readily biodegradable, so if there was a leak, there is a low risk of long term damage to the environment. The same cannot be said for mineral oil.

Bouncing back

Not all catastrophes can be avoided, so resilience is also about the ability to bounce back. Extreme weather events, terrorist attacks or other disasters can all knock transformers out of action. In worst case scenarios, such failures can cause loss of life, and from a commercial perspective the damage to business continuity can translate into substantial financial losses (between 2008 and 2013 alone, transformer damage cost FM Global clients a combined $339 million in lost revenue).

Again, ester transformer fluids can enable improved resilience. For example, by using these fluids it is possible to make smaller transformers – reducing the size of a power transformer by up to 30%. This can make a critical difference: for example, making it possible to load a transformer onto a truck and transport it across bridges that could not take the weight of regular transformers. Some transformer manufacturers and utilities have already developed such emergency units, ready to be deployed in case of a catastrophic failure to get crucial services back online rapidly. In other words, ester transformer fluids have enabled resilience transformers as an emergency service.

Resilience is more than a buzzword. It’s an increasingly necessary part of civil and business life. Just look at the growing trend for major cities to hire dedicated Chief Resilience Officers (CROs). There are countless things that go into making a city, society or business resilient and some are more obvious than others. For sure, they don’t enjoy the visibility of, say, flood barriers; but don’t doubt that ester transformer fluids also serve in the growing quest for resilience. 

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