Stories & features

Why is that new substation in my neighbourhood?

Upgraded como lake substation
BC Hydro completed a $20 million upgrade to the Como Lake Substation in Coquitlam - one of over 300 substations across B.C. - in 2015. And just last month, two new Vancouver Island substations were added, at Buckley Bay (Comox) and at South Wellington (Nanaimo).

As B.C. grows, so does demand for power and fewer, shorter, outages

The New York Times once described substations as “the poor stepchildren of the electrical grid”. An outdoor substation is anything but pretty, but as B.C.’s electricity demand grows an expected 40% in the next 20 years, it’s essential that we build new substations and upgrade existing ones across the province.

Just last month, BC Hydro added two substations – one at Buckley Bay near Comox and another at South Wellington near Nanaimo. They were built for $32 million and $28.5 million respectively, and are part of an annual $2 billion a year we're spending on B.C.’s electrical system.

We own and operate more than 300 substations, which act as a link between our transmission and distribution networks. Power is generated at very high voltage, which makes it more efficient for moving over transmission lines for long distances in a province where hydroelectric dams and other generation sources are usually located far away from most homes and businesses. Substations receive high voltage power from transmission lines and transform that power to a lower voltage so it can be distributed to homes and businesses.

Before we build a new substation, we work closely with communities to ensure it’s located at a site that not only makes sense for our electrical system, but also for the community.

“I heard very clearly from regional politicians at Buckley Bay that they felt they were actively involved, had influence and input into where the final site for the substation was,” says David Lebeter, vice president of field operations for BC Hydro. "Over the years we have become much better at working with groups impacted by our projects."

"People are now less tolerant of industrial uses of land in the area they live, and they’re more demanding of visual aesthetics,” he adds. “I think back to when I grew up as a kid and nobody talked of aesthetics. You build what you needed and people accepted it. Today, that’s not the case.”

While the Buckley Bay and South Wellington substations have both been built in rural areas, many of our substations are in commercial or residential areas. After consultation in Vancouver’s densely populated Mount Pleasant area, we chose to build an enclosed substation that’s more visually appealing.

“When you’re building in a place like Vancouver, you’re going to be building in somebody’s viewscape, and you have to consider that,” says Lebeter.

Substations built to increase capacity and reliability

Ensuring capacity, the ability to provide enough energy for everyone when demand is greatest, is the primary driver for new or upgraded substations. But reliability, or the ability to minimize both the frequency and duration of power outages, also factors greatly into planning.

Lebeter notes that one of the great challenges is that B.C. is not only large geographically, but population is often widely dispersed. And that often means long distribution power lines – or “feeders” – that serve customers over very large areas. When a tree falls on a power line and causes an outage on a long feeder, a lot of customers are left in the dark.

“So if you break down the distance between substations, you automatically increase the reliability,” he says. “That was clearly the case at Buckley Bay. Instead of feeding the area with distribution feeders, we now service the load from our transmission sytem, which is more reliable."

With an additional substation, you have the ability to feed power to homes and businesses from two directions. That way, we can shut down power to a short section of distribution line for repairs while still supplying power to most customers in the area.

“I hope people understand that the investments we’re making are all to serve them,” says Lebeter. "They're investments that are designed to serve customers better, by both meeting their needs for electricity, and for reliability, today and for 50 years into the future."