What to consider when you’re thinking about a synchronous condenser
Depending on when and where you want to connect your new solar farm or wind farm, the network service provider or your consultant may tell you that you’ll need a synchronous condenser. That may not be good news, because these machines don’t come cheap and they usually don’t provide a direct revenue stream. What should you do next?
Do you understand why you need a synchronous condenser?
The first step is to understand why you need the synchronous condenser. The inverters at the heart of most solar farms and most modern wind turbines need a strong electricity grid to push their energy into. If the network is not strong, the inverter is likely to fail to switch at the required times, swing against the power system like a pendulum, and distort the waveform, causing harmonics. The synchronous condenser overcomes this, strengthening the power system in the local area by forcing the network voltage into a near-perfect sine wave of the required size.
Is it possible to predict the need for a synchronous condenser earlier?
There are ways that you can predict at the project pre-feasibility stage that a synchronous condenser might be needed, before the network service provider becomes involved. Take a look at other renewable energy installations that have been constructed recently in the same region; if they needed a synchronous condenser, you almost certainly will too.
Consider where the installation is in the grid, and if the answer to any of the following questions is yes, you will likely need a synchronous condenser: Is your installation remote from all traditional generating stations? Has a large traditional generator shut down in the area recently? Are other generators in the area routinely constrained due to network stability challenges?
Simple calculations can be completed based on information that most network service providers publish on their websites, including network constraints and fault levels. These calculations aren’t always definitive, but they will offer significant insight.
What do you need to specify?
It is best to specify the exact function that the synchronous condenser must achieve. Typically, this means specifying the fault current contribution that is required from the machine and leaving it up to the manufacturer to decide the optimal machine design including the headline MVA rating. Once these headline values have been determined, consider the following questions, each of which has a substantial cost impact:
- How much reactive power do you need the synchronous condenser to absorb? Typically these machines can only absorb approximately half of their headline rating, so don’t ask for too much unless you have deep pockets.
- Do you really need inertia that is greater than the manufacturer’s standard? Synchronous condensers are known for having inertia, but asking for inertia that is greater than the manufacturer’s standard will result in substantial additional cost and usually results in no additional revenue stream.
- The synchronous condenser is being installed to provide system strength, so do you really want it to be able to supply reactive power indefinitely? Perhaps 60 seconds would be enough.
Are some cost savings not worth making?
For a synchronous condenser project, there are some measures that, on the surface, might appear to be potential cost-saving considerations. Can you omit the transformer tap changer? Could the cooling equipment be downsized or even omitted? Can you connect to the station 33 kV busbar? Detailed analysis is needed to answer these questions definitively. In our experience, however, the answers to each question have been emphatically no.
If you need the synchronous condenser to operate close to its rated reactive power absorption limit, you’ll need a transformer tap changer. Similarly, if the machine connects to a 33 kV busbar, fault levels will become unreasonable and an even larger machine will be required.
What’s the best contracting model?
Your choice of contracting model will depend on your appetite for risk and the sensitivity of your schedule. A typical solar or wind farm project is very schedule-sensitive, which suits an all-inclusive turnkey project delivery including everything from civil foundations, fencing and drainage through to integration with the farm’s control system. But this delivery mode comes at a price, and there are few Tier-1 equipment suppliers prepared to take on this model. The lowest cost suppliers will be likely to want to put your machine onto a ship, point it in your general direction, and send you the invoice.
Whatever your contracting model, one of the largest risks to projects is the adequacy of the power system models. You need to be confident that the original equipment manufacturer understands the market operator’s model requirements and has the skills to comply with them.
Can the machine offer economic benefits?
Two possible revenue streams could potentially flow from installing a synchronous condenser. By sizing the synchronous condenser to provide the reactive power required from a solar farm by the electricity rules, it is possible to operate the solar inverters and the main transformer at a higher power factor. This has the potential to increase the power output and consequently the revenue from the farm by up to 7%. A proponent could also install an oversized synchronous condenser and sell the spare system-strengthening capacity to another renewable farm in the same region. In the future, inertia and system-strength markets may evolve in ways that provide direct revenue streams for the synchronous condenser.
Is there an alternative?
The inverters at the heart of most solar farms and most modern wind turbines are changing. Until recently, they have exclusively used a technology called ‘grid-following inverters’, but a newer ‘grid-forming inverter’ is breaking into the market. These inverters are more expensive at the moment, but that’s likely to change rapidly. The newer inverters are much less sensitive to system strength. It is likely that applications will soon emerge in which changing the inverter will eliminate the need for a synchronous condenser. We predict that this could occur for small installations first and evolve over time to include larger renewable farms.
Putting it all together
The most cost-effective projects are often those that link multiple technologies – such as a wind farm with modern wind turbines, static VAr compensators and more than one synchronous condenser. These technologies were not designed to work well together, but with carefully coordinated controls they have done so in practice, providing the required system strength, voltage control and inertia for a successful minimum-cost project.
About the author
David Wilkey is Entura’s Principal Consultant, Secondary Electrical Engineering. He has more than 20 years of consulting experience in electrical engineering across Australia and New Zealand, focusing on the delivery of advisory on secondary systems and power systems engineering. David’s expertise spans all areas of electrical engineering with a particular focus on electrical protection, power system studies and rotating electrical machines.
March 9, 2021