The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 16, 2018

BWL's substation offers high-voltage good looks

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - If you're going to build an electrical substation, or a power plant, you might as well try to make it look nice.

A nice form and a necessary function exemplify the construction of a new 130-megawatt electrical Central Substation undertaken by the Lansing Board of Water and Light along Washington Ave., south of downtown. 

Clark Construction is managing the $27.9 million project in the city's REO Town neighborhood, which is moving rapidly toward completion this year. It will easily be the largest of the 21 electrical substations in the BWL portfolio, although some have been decommissioned. This substation will serve about one-third of the BWL's customer base, most of them downtown.

"I think we hit the mark with this substation," said BWL General Manager Dick Peffley. "The key is to make it fit into the neighborhood. We got design and supportive comments from the community, and we looked at how other downtowns designed similar buildings. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better looking one in the country."

Sheathed in brick with arched windows, the new Central Substation takes architectural cues from the handsome, five-year-old gas-fired power plant that the building trades erected for the BWL about a quarter mile south on Washington Avenue. The designs of both projects are intended to fit in with the historic REO Town neighborhood, which was the home of vehicle and truck production plants from 1905 to 1975. The name comes from Oldsmobile and later, the initials of REO founder Ransom Eli Olds.

Located hard against the Grand River, the substation project is plotted on a four-acre portion of Scott Park. According to the BWL, the project will enhance other recreational activities at the site, including: viewing and fishing platforms along the Grand River; a walkway from Washington Ave. to Townsend St.; loop trails connecting existing pedestrian system to proposed walkways; new pathway from Capital Ave. connecting to Cooley Gardens; a new staircase connecting the River Trail to Washington Ave.; and wayfinding signs on Malcolm X, Washington Ave. and Townsend Street. It will also replace existing parking lots in poor condition with new lots, and incorporate a new landscape design for the park. Decorative wall panels will be added to the Central Substation.

The substation project has employed about 75 trades workers over the course of this year. "It's gone very well, the trades have been fantastic," said Project Manager J.D. McNulty of Christman. "We have done a lot of outside coordination to make sure we don't do anything inadvertent to the grid." He said when the station becomes active, it will be rated at 138,000 volts, and will be transformed down to 13.2 k.v.

Peffley said from his perspective, the substation construction "has been very smooth." He laughingly added that "nothing has come up to my level for review during construction, and when that happens I look at it as a successful project."

The BWL has and will sponsor several other projects that are designed in good part to transition the utility away from coal as a fuel source. Lansing Energy Tomorrow, the BWL’s major electric modernization program, includes replacing and upgrading aging generation and transmission infrastructure, and replacing and rebuilding substations. The BWL this year completed construction of a new 24-megawatt solar array in Delta Twp. - the second largest utility-scale project in Michigan. Also as part of the Energy Tomorrow plan, the BWL announced a year ago that it would build a $500 million natural gas-fired power plant on the grounds of its Erickson Power Station facility in Delta Twp. The project is expected to start next March.

The Central Substation project was logically located in the shadow of the BWL's Eckert Plant, which already has in-place electric distribution lines. The coal-burning Eckert Plant is nearing the end of its life, slated to be shut down at the end of 2020.

"When you get away from the switchgear that's inside," McNulty said, "in the end this substation looks great from the street, and I think people in Lansing are going to be proud to have it in their town."

AT THE REAR DRIVEWAY of the new Lansing Board of Water and Light Central Substation, IBEW Local 665 electricians Anthony Fryer and Landon Spitzley install conduit for the parking lot’s gate. They’re employed by Swan Electric.

THE NEW CENTRAL SUBSTATION owned by the Lansing Board of Water and Light fits in nicely in the city’s historic REO Town neighborhood, with its classic brick exterior and paned and arched windows. In the background is the BWL’s Eckert powerhouse, which is slated to be shuttered at the end of 2020. The substation was sited at that location in part to take advantage of the existing electric distribution lines.