How smart electrical engineering keeps Schiphol up and running

Daphne van Staveren, Installation Manager, Heijmans Utiliteit

In terms of size and complexity, Schiphol’s electrical installation can be compared to that of a small city. Day and night, work is carried out on electrical installations for runways, hangars, terminals and much more. Safety of employees and passengers is paramount and there is absolutely no room for downtime. A great challenge for the installation manager!

Some 25 years ago, I started working on high-voltage installations in the Botlek industrial area and then at Schiphol Airport for Heijmans Infra. I am currently installation manager for about half of the Terminal-related low-voltage installations (BAM is in charge of the other half), and the Bravo, Charlie and Delta piers. There is a great deal of construction going on, so more installations will be added…

More complicated installations

When I started out, electrical installations were simpler. We might occasionally need to deal with an overloaded transformer or broken switch, or a cable might be damaged as a result of digging in the wrong place. These are all easily solvable problems that were not necessarily grid-related.

In the last fifteen years, everything has become more complicated. We can see this most clearly in the low-voltage grid. High voltage is not impervious to interference, but phenomena need to be far more extreme before the type of situations arise that we encounter much sooner in low voltage. What could we experience? Unexplainable currents over zero, for example, which trigger protections. You know exactly how much power is demanded and there should be no overload, and yet the protection is triggered.

Measurements might also reveal large reactive powers. These can add up considerably. Of course, reactive power has always existed, but electrification is enhancing it. There are more electronics in all types of components for example. As a result, you need to deal with harmonics that cause,  among other things, reactive power. Installations appear to have reached their maximum capacity, even though that should not be at all possible, when you look at what is connected.

Electrification is moving at a much faster pace than the grid can keep up with. In the end, we need to reinforce the grid. However, we could be making better use of available capacity. The grid is not always filled with energy that is actually used, but also carries a great deal of reactive power, often caused by power electronics. Heijmans carries out measurements at other locations and we sometimes encounter reactive power levels of ten, fifteen, even twenty percent. Companies end up paying for this, because often no measurements are being taken and there isn’t a great deal of insight. However, this is like giving up 20% of your salary without getting anything in return! More attention should be paid to this.

Millions of potential disruptors

We would like to deploy more heat pumps at Schiphol as part of the energy transition. These require a considerable amount of energy and contain power electronics. Whenever a mechanical device is replaced by an electrical device,  power is not only needed for the electrical part that has a physical function. This leads to exponential growth in power demand on grids that are already not overly well equipped. If one or more devices that consume significantly more power are suddenly connected, this has consequences for the high-voltage as well as and the low-voltage network, from cabling to distributors and switches. You have to take a smart approach to that.

We’re replacing millions of fluorescent bulbs with millions of LED fixtures. These all work with direct current and contain drivers that turn alternating current into direct current. Each Printed Circuit Board may cause disruption on your grid, so you end up with millions of potential disruptors!

We rely on a large number of backup installations, which compensate for dips in the grid, ensuring everything always runs unhindered. There are separate systems in place. For luggage, for example, but also for aircraft guidance. These are all measured separately. This allows us to determine what each system is doing, and which load pattern that creates.

Right now, we’re taking a  critical look at all installations with suppliers and partners. Exactly what are devices doing? Where can we make electric gains? How do we use recovered energy in other places? This requires weeks of measurements. Based on the resulting information, we can conduct additional research and take steps. You have to map your installation very well and you also need a lot of data points to understand where things could be more effective. This requires working with measurements over longer periods. This is because power consumption at Schiphol on weekends during the summer holidays is completely different from that on weekdays and outside the holiday periods. Not only with regard to total consumption, but also where consumption is higher or lower. In this way, you can find pain points and opportunities for improvement.

However, if  the baggage system is adjusted, for example, the situation can suddenly be very different! That is why it is important that managers and departments communicate and compare measurement results. Each installations affects the others, so it is important that we know what each department has planned in the short and long term. If I have information about the feeding side, and someone else has user data, we can set up an improvement process together. We know exactly where the pain points are, where discrepancies in measurement results occur, and where we might achieve ‘quick wins’. In this way, we try to ensure as little energy as possible is lost.

HyTEPS has been helping me clarify and solve problems through measurements and analyses for 15 years. A complex network, such as Schiphol’s, cannot be mapped with just a few measurements. Other installation managers sometimes tell me that they have 50 low-voltage switchboards under management. In my case, there are 3200, all of which I want measured separately  …

Good with numbers

In  the Netherlands and far beyond, we are facing a huge shortage of electrical engineers. But we are missing out on a lot of potential because there are not enough women working in electrical engineering! I have always been good with numbers, and did math, physics, and economics in high school. After that, I went on to study electrical engineering. I completed an internship at an energy company, where I also did installation work, pulling and connecting cables, which was a lot of fun. At a certain point, this grew into commissioning installations  and finding and solving malfunctions. In such cases, it helps if you have practical experience. The profession has changed a great deal in the meantime, for example, we work with electronics and computers much more now. The ideas many people have about electrical engineering are long outdated. I would definitely encourage women to look at what the sector has to offer.


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