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An old technology that’s learned new tricks

01 April, 2022

Synchronous condensers have been around for many years, but have recently enjoyed a new lease of life. Robb Wood, ABB’s UK division manager for large motors and generators, explains how.

As the UK transitions to a more sustainable energy future and pursues its net-zero targets, more and more renewable generation sites are required. However, unlike conventional fossil fuel powered plants, most renewable sources such as wind and solar are variable in their nature and can be unpredictable. The more of them you connect to the grid, the more it increases the likelihood of voltage variances, which can cause trips, downtime and equipment damage.  

The uninterrupted supply of electricity in the UK is something that many of us take for granted, but in truth it requires a careful balancing act. As a result, synchronous condensers are coming back into fashion. A synchronous condenser is essentially a rotating motor. It works by providing instantaneous inertia and short-circuit power for overload events, while supplying or absorbing reactive power. Unlike a conventional motor, a synchronous condenser’s shaft is not connected to anything, instead spinning freely to provide or absorb reactive power as required by the grid. In the 1950s and 60s, all grid stability was provided by rotating mechanical machines, but the rise of power electronics has resulted in them being removed from the grid, without being replaced. 

Synchronous condensers already serve an important purpose for power grid operators, yet they can also serve an important purpose for large industrial facilities that are especially reliant upon continuous power. Downtime at, for instance, a large steelworks or oil and gas platform can be extremely costly. A synchronous condenser provides instantaneous power factor correction helping such facilities or microgrids to be self-sufficient. It allows them to fall back on locally-produced energy in the event of rapid voltage fluctuations caused, for instance, by short circuits or extreme weather conditions, effectively insulating the facility from wider issues affecting the grid.

Renewables are clearly vital if we are to ensure a sustainable energy future, but since most renewables provide no inertia, every new source that is connected to the grid can potentially contribute to instability, and act as a pinch point for voltage variances. Despite falling out of fashion for many years, synchronous condensers are roaring back as a facilitator for the green energy revolution.

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