Empowering Tomorrow: Innovations and Challenges in Substation Design

air insulated and gas insulated substation design blog post

The beating heart of any reliable, robust electrical grid system lies in its substation design. A substation might not be the most visible aspect of a power distribution network, but it's undeniably one of the most critical. Its efficiency, safety features, and resilience determine the overall stability and reliability of the electrical supply to infrastructure, industries, and homes alike. Any failure in this crucial component can lead to widespread power outages, significant economic losses, and potentially hazardous situations. Thus, the importance of investing in high-quality substation design and maintenance cannot be overstated—it's a foundational pillar for a secure, dependable energy future. 

In the United States and around the globe, there is a need for electrical grid upgrades to meet the needs of a growing population and severe weather events. High-voltage substations, which serve as crucial points in the intricate power transmission setup, are vital in meeting increasing demands securely and dependably. There are a variety of types of switchgear designed for high-voltage substations that offer the flexibility to provide customized solutions, including:

  • Air-Insulated Substation (AIS): cost-effective, suitable for outdoor locations, low maintenance 
  • Gas-Insulated Substation (GIS): compact, reliable, safer, minimal environmental impact, suitable for densely populated urban areas
  • Hybrid Substation: flexible, offers a balance between cost effectiveness and space optimization

At the time of this article, the gas-insulated substation market is projected to grow significantly over the next two years, and potentially by more than 10% by 2030. This is due primarily to the growing need for environmentally friendly solutions across a variety of sectors, as well as the smaller footprint. Our team at RTP is currently designing modifications to an EHV GIS substation located in the downtown area of a major city that provides power to a large number of residents, businesses, and institutions. While this 500,000 volt substation is a powerful and critical source of energy, the average passerby will not even realize that they are walking past a substation.

The Rise of Gas Insulated Switchgear Stations 

As our infrastructure ages and our population increases, the need for modernizing our grid could not be greater. Challenges such as increased demand, the need for renewable energy integration, and the incessant pull for efficiency have made Gas Insulated switchgear substations the preferred choice to define the future landscape of electricity distribution. 

The key to GIS lies in its design, representing a quantum leap in substation technology. With the ability to compress massive power distribution infrastructure into a fraction of the space needed by conventional air insulated substations (AIS), GIS is a game-changer in efficiency and environmental impact.

The GIS approach offers safety and environmental advantages that can't be overlooked. Since the GIS system is totally encapsulated and insulated from the external environment, it is impervious to particle or mist pollution, making it a preferred choice for densely populated urban areas and other locations where land is a premium. Its compact design and ability to withstand high voltages make it a preferred choice for urban areas, where space is limited.

The cost of installation might be higher initially, due to the sophisticated design and materials involved, but the long-term economic benefits of GIS, including reduced land usage and operational costs, often outweigh the upfront expense. The reduced environmental footprint is a welcome bonus in today's world, where sustainable practices are increasingly becoming a priority.

Mitigating Arc Flash Hazards in Substations

In today’s rapidly advancing technological landscape, ensuring the safety and efficiency of industrial plants can’t be overstated. One of the critical challenges in substation design is effectively mitigating the dangers posed by arc flashes – a sudden and potent discharge of electrical energy that occurs when a significant fault condition or short circuit flows through the air from one conductor to another, or to ground. These incidents are not only hazardous to the electrical equipment within substations but also pose a deadly risk to personnel working within or near substation environments.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are over 30,000 arc flash incidents in the United States every year, leading to severe injuries and even fatalities. The intense heat from an arc flash can reach temperatures as high as 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit, over three times the surface temperature of the sun, causing catastrophic burns and igniting flammable clothing instantly. Beyond the immediate physical danger, arc flashes can also result in costly downtime for facilities, loss of equipment, and legal liabilities for companies.

Well-designed substations are crucial in minimizing the risk of arc flashes, along with in depth arc flash studies and strictly adhering to OSHA standards. According to Substation Safety’s 6-point plan for arc flash OSHA compliance, an in-depth safety program must be provided to employees, along with an accurate analysis of the degree of arc flash hazard presented on the substation, and training and equipment suitable for the hazard present.

By incorporating advanced protective technologies, spatial layouts that reduce the likelihood of fault conditions, and isolation features that help contain incidents should they occur, a thoughtfully engineered substation can significantly decrease the chances of such dangerous events. In essence, through meticulous design and adherence to the highest safety standards, substations play an indispensable role in safeguarding lives and maintaining continuous, reliable power distribution in industrial plants.

The Market Matters: Substation Design Across Industries

It is vital to understand that successful substation design is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Industries such as the steel, chemical, oil & gas, and general manufacturing sectors each have their specific needs and regulations. A substation designed for a steel plant might differ vastly from one serving an oil refinery, both in terms of the equipment used and the safety standards imposed.

At RTP, we take a thorough substation design approach to cater to various needs, encompassing GIS, AIS, and hybrid configurations. Our process covers defining equipment specs, crafting clear diagrams, prioritizing safety measures, and optimizing functionality. We ensure power distribution and integrate security features like the Kirk Key System. Our designs prioritize stability and accuracy, providing reliable solutions for our clients’ needs. 

Our vast portfolio of over 50 completed substation projects includes:

  • 69 KV Switchyard Substation for the Bauxite Mine Project in Toll Gate, Jamaica, owned by ALCOA Minerals of Jamaica. The scope involved protective device setting and relay coordination studies for the utility tie-line, as well as a ground grid analysis using ETAP Powerstation software.
  • 100 KV Transformer/Thyristor Rectifier Substation for the Zinc Facility Project in Mooresboro, North Carolina, owned by Horsehead Corporation. RTP conducted ground grid analysis to meet ABB requirements and ensure the design met standards.
  • 100 KV Harmonic Filter Substation for the same Zinc Facility Project, involving protective device setting and relay coordination studies for various equipment, along with ground grid analysis.
  • SVC PLUS Substation for the Steel Melt Shop Project in Calvert, Alabama, owned by Thyssen Krupp Corporation.
  • 161 KV Aluminum Potline Rectifier Substation for the Aluminum Facility Project in New Madrid, Missouri, owned by Noranda Aluminum, Inc. This included installation engineering for various equipment such as thyristor bridges, rectifier transformers, harmonic filters, and transformers.

RTP has also untaken projects for clients, including MEPPI, Dominion Power, Hitachi Energy, ConEd. Caribbean Utility Company, First Energy, Ohio Star Forge, Jamalco, ALCOA, Noranda, and USS, encompassing various voltage levels and configurations across different locations.We pride ourselves on the ability to deliver substation designs that not only meet industry-specific requirements but also surpass client expectations in terms of reliability and long-term performance. Whether it's an industrial facility or a city's backbone power grid, our solutions are tailored to safeguard against downtime and deliver power uninterrupted.

EAF blog post

Revitalizing the Steel Industry: The Transformative Role of Electric Arc Furnaces in Sustainable Steelmaking

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In the quest for more sustainable practices, the steel industry has found a promising ally in Electric Arc Furnaces (EAFs). Unlike traditional methods, EAFs utilize scrap metal and electric current instead of iron ore and coke. This shift in approach has significant implications for reducing the carbon footprint of steel production, marking a departure from the perceived inflexibility of the industry.

Steel, the backbone of modern construction and manufacturing, has long been an essential component of our everyday lives. However, its production comes at a significant environmental cost, contributing approximately 8% of total global emissions. The conventional method of steel manufacturing involves heating coal to produce coke, which is then burned in massive blast furnaces to melt iron ore. This process releases substantial carbon emissions, making the steel industry a notorious contributor to climate change.

Steel's ubiquity in our daily lives, from cars and airplanes to household appliances, underscores the urgency of finding cleaner and more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. The steel industry sees its responsibility for a substantial portion of global emissions, and has embraced sustainable alternatives for the well-being of our planet.

The Electric Arc Furnace (EAF): A Sustainable Revolution

Electric Arc Furnaces, which have been around for decades and are heralded as a beacon of change in the steel industry, offer a sustainable alternative to conventional blast furnaces. The most recyclable material globally, steel can now be produced entirely from scrap metal feedstock in EAFs. This process significantly reduces the energy required for steel production compared to traditional methods reliant on primary steelmaking from ores.

The numbers speak volumes – over 70% of U.S. steel comes from scrap steel melted in EAFs, resulting in carbon emissions as low as 14% of those associated with conventional processes. Beyond emission reductions, EAFs present a more flexible production model, allowing for rapid start-ups and shutdowns to align with fluctuating demand. This adaptability provides a critical advantage over the rigid operational nature of traditional blast furnaces.

The Inner Workings of Electric Arc Furnaces

Understanding the inner workings of EAFs unveils the intricacies of their contribution to sustainable steel production. Industrial EAFs come in various sizes, ranging from small one-tonne units used in foundries to large 400-tonne units employed in secondary steelmaking. Operating at temperatures surpassing 1,800 °C (3,300 °F), these furnaces play a pivotal role in transforming scrap metal into molten steel.

The process begins with the meticulous sorting of scrap metal into shred and heavy melt grades. Loaded into baskets, the scrap is carefully layered for optimal furnace operation, with considerations for furnace efficiency and safety. Some operations include pre-heating the scrap to enhance plant efficiency before the actual melting process begins.

The moment of meltdown is initiated with electrodes bore into the scrap, creating arcs that release potential energy and ignite a fiery spectacle. As the scrap melts, a byproduct known as slag forms, capturing impurities and reducing heat loss. This process involves multiple cycles of melting, refining, and superheating until the desired chemistry and temperature are achieved.

Tapping molten steel into ladles follows, marking the culmination of the production cycle. A portion of liquid steel and slag is intentionally left in the furnace to form a "hot heel," which aids in preheating the next charge of scrap and accelerates the melting process. The furnace then undergoes maintenance, including refractory inspections, ensuring a safe and efficient process at the heart of steelmaking.

Flexibility and Adaptability: Key Advantages of EAFs

What sets EAFs apart is their adaptability to varying production needs. Unlike blast furnaces, which operate continuously for extended periods, EAFs can be rapidly started and stopped, enabling steel mills to adjust production based on demand fluctuations. This flexibility aligns with the modern industrial landscape, where responsiveness and efficiency are paramount.

In scenarios where high-quality scrap is scarce, EAFs exhibit further flexibility by allowing the supplementation of lower quality scrap with direct reduced iron (DRI) and alloy additives. This versatility positions EAFs as a superior alternative to traditional blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces.

Looking Towards a Greener Future: The Role of Renewable Energy and Green Hydrogen-Produced DRI

As the global steel market is expected to grow by approximately 30% by 2050, the industry faces the challenge of reconciling growth with sustainability. To meet net-zero emissions goals set by major steelmakers, significant changes are required. The integration of EAFs powered by renewable energy, especially those utilizing green hydrogen-produced DRI, presents a transformative opportunity.

Renewable energy sources offer a cleaner and more sustainable power supply for EAFs, reducing the carbon output per ton of steel produced. Green hydrogen-produced DRI, when incorporated into the steelmaking process, brings the industry significantly closer to achieving carbon neutrality. This represents a crucial step forward in aligning steel production with broader environmental objectives and addressing the urgent need for more sustainable energy infrastructure.

A Local Perspective: R.T. Patterson's Commitment to Sustainable Steel Production

In Pittsburgh, a city synonymous with steel production, R.T. Patterson stands at the forefront of the industry's modernization. With a legacy of completing 13 melt shop engineering projects and winning ESWP's Industrial Project of the Year two decades ago for a Melt Shop at Wheeling Pittsburgh's Steel plant, our firm has a deep understanding of the importance of sustainable steel production.

The awarded project included a powerful 250-ton AC electric arc furnace and a state-of-the-art ladle furnace, representing a significant leap forward in sustainable steel production two decades ago. The advancements made in that project, coupled with our ongoing commitment to innovation, underscore our dedication to pushing the boundaries of what's possible in the pursuit of sustainable steelmaking.

Considerations for EAF Installation: A Holistic Approach

While the benefits of EAFs are evident, the installation process requires a thoughtful and holistic approach. Factors such as shop configuration, furnace capacity, existing infrastructure, and the age of the facility (brownfield vs. greenfield) must be considered to ensure a seamless integration and maximize the environmental and operational advantages offered by EAF technology.

As we navigate the path toward a greener future, RTP remains committed to providing cutting-edge solutions that balance the operational needs of the steel industry with the imperative of environmental responsibility.

Forging a Sustainable Path Forward

The global EAF market was valued at 730 million in 2023, and is expected to reach 1,473 million by 2023. The rise of Electric Arc Furnaces marks a significant shift in the steel industry's trajectory towards sustainability. By embracing these innovative technologies, the industry has the potential to not only reduce its environmental impact but also thrive in a rapidly changing global landscape.

In the coming years, the continued evolution of steel production processes, guided by principles of environmental stewardship and technological innovation, will play a pivotal role in shaping a world where progress and sustainability coexist harmoniously. The journey towards a carbon-neutral steel industry is underway, and Electric Arc Furnaces are lighting the way.

Wayne interview blog post

Driving Excellence in Engineering Leadership: Interviewing the President at RTP, Your Trusted Industrial Engineering Firm

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With a wealth of engineering and leadership experience spanning 40 years within R.T. Patterson, Wayne Johnson, PE embodies the very essence of our industrial engineering firm. His journey mirrors the evolution of RTP, from its founding to becoming a leading force in the engineering landscape. Wayne’s visionary leadership has not only steered us through industry shifts but has also fostered an environment where innovation and collaboration thrive. In this blog post, we dive into Wayne's unparalleled contributions as our President, exploring how his expertise continues to drive RTP's commitment to excellence and lays the groundwork for future successes.

As someone who has dedicated over 40 years to R.T. Patterson, what's motivated you to stay with the company for such a significant period?

During college I, I worked at RTP for a summer job as a draftsman. After graduating college, I went to work for one of the largest engineering companies in the country, but I realized the work was very limiting, you were pigeonholed into only one bit of a project and that's all you did every day. So after about six months of doing that, I thought I'd like to come back to Pittsburgh, and RTP immediately came to mind. At RTP, the projects you were a part of weren’t huge projects, but you did every aspect of it, you weren't doing just in charge of one little piece. I started advancing in my career, from Project Manager to General Manager of the Pittsburgh operations, to Vice President of Engineering, and then to President of RTP when Roy Patterson stepped down. As I was doing these interesting projects and advancing my career, I felt no need to go look elsewhere. I truly enjoy working here!

What do you believe sets your team apart from your competitors?

We were and continue to be a family organization. RTP really looks out for their employee’s well-being and happiness in the workplace, and what’s happened over the years is when people come here, they come to stay. We actually have several people that have put in around 25 years, and a few that are approaching 40 years! We even had one employee who was with us for 50 years before retiring. And I think that kind of sets us apart quite a bit. It’s the people, and the environment created by our people.

What is RTP looking forward to as a new member of the ARG family?

I am genuinely excited about moving the company into new markets, with a special emphasis on mentoring the new generation of engineers. Most of our people are very experienced, being in the later stages of their career with many years under their belts. I'm really looking forward to creating a synergy that blends the fresh perspectives of our new engineers with the seasoned expertise of our veterans to see how we can continue to expand RTP for the next 60 years as a top industrial engineering firm serving clients across the United States.

Steel industry growth article

Powering Pittsburgh's Steel Engineering Industry: RTP's 50-Year Legacy

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With a steadfast commitment to excellence, RT Patterson (RTP) has been a pillar of strength for Pittsburgh's steel industry for over five decades, solidifying our place as the leading engineering firm in Pittsburgh. Recently, the global steel sector experienced a notable upswing, with world crude steel production seeing a 6.6 percent surge compared to the same period last year. As we move forward, this promising momentum in steel production showcases a robust industry ready for further expansion. 

In July alone, 63 countries reported a collective production of 158.5 million tons, marking a significant boost in steel output according to an enlightening article from Metal Center News. In the U.S., July saw the production of 6.9 million tons, indicating a 0.5 percent increase from the previous year. Although the year-to-date figures remained relatively flat globally, RTP has been at the forefront of supporting US steel production, contributing to the sector's resilience and growth.

RTP's extensive experience in the steel industry spans various projects, reinforcing our position as the go-to engineering firm for steel clients. From revitalizing production lines to designing cutting-edge steel facilities, our expertise has been pivotal in propelling the steel industry forward. At RT Patterson, we stand as dedicated supporters of U.S. steel production and are eager to witness the trajectory of this industry's growth throughout the remainder of 2023. RTP is poised to continue its legacy of excellence, driving innovation and progress in Pittsburgh's vibrant industrial engineering and steel sector.