March 2 2016 11:48 AM

BWL quietly rejected putting new substation underground

This story has been updated.

In its campaign for a new downtown power substation, the Lansing Board of Water & Light told neither its Board of Commissioners or the public that the unsightly facility can be located underground.

Instead, the BWL is pushing to demolish or possibly relocate the historic 98-year-old Scott Center home and sunken garden at the corner of Malcolm X and Washington Avenue, where it wants to construct a $26 million, 50-foot high array of towers and transformers to supply power to downtown Lansing. It would tower over 20-foot-high walls decorated with murals and include park improvements and access to the River Trail. BWL would like to start the two-year project in the fall.

The underground substation option would cost “$45.6 million plus $5-10 million for burying the transmission lines into the site,” BWL spokesman Steve Serkaian said. A smaller underground substation designed to handle less electricity was built in Anaheim, Calif., in 2006. The cost of that project was $19.5 million, including $1.5 million for a park over the top of the facility.

Serkaian said BWL needs a much larger facility that can handle more electricity.

“Because of the Central Substation’s higher voltage, it is part of the nationwide transmission grid requiring a higher level of reliability. Anaheim’s is not part of the grid,” he said. “Also, the Anaheim substation is built into an existing hill, and the Scott Park site would simply not be a feasible location to duplicate it.”

He called comparisons between Anaheim and any facility in Lansing “comparing apples to oranges.”

The Scott Center was one of nine sites initially considered by the BWL most of them impractical for the project, the utility said. It has made little effort to enlist support or provide information about the project to the commissioners, who must approve proposal and location.

“I have been asking for a one-page fact sheet on the various locations considered and the associated costs,” Commissioner Dennis Louney said. “I still don’t have that.”

An architectural rendering showing what the proposed electrical power substation could look like during the day from looking southwest down Washington Avenue from Malcom X Street.
Courtesy Image

Commissioners will be formally briefed on the plans and planning process next week at a Committee of the Whole meeting.

A terse explanation of BWL communication with its commissioners suggested that they received sufficient information.

“The Board of Commissioners was invited to the Central Substation press conference last month, and some members attended, and each member was sent the press release and accompanying power point presentation,” said Serkaian.

“So Board members were given the information. Because the project and others involved in the Lansing EnergyTomorrow plan has already been approved and which sets the policy which management follows, management is not required to seek approval of operational projects like this one.”

Prior to the public announcement, BWL officials made presentations to invited guests. The presentation included a lengthy PowerPoint. Serkaian declined to send the presentation to City Pulse, claiming that the information was preliminary and no longer accurate.

Serkaian said the BWL considered eight sites, besides the Scott Center homestead. They were:

— The vacant GM office building on Townsend Street and the GM parking lot on Townsend, both of which he said were rejected by GM, Serkaian said.

— A residential area near South Street and Grand Avenue next to the REO Town cogeneration plant that he said would have been extremely expensive to connect to the downtown electrical cables and would have involved the purchase of over a dozen occupied homes and displaced a number of residents.

— The space behind the REO Town business buildings along Washington across from the BWL’s headquarters building; this was very tight on space and would have eliminated owner parking and delivery access.

An architectural rendering off what the 20 foot high walls of the proposed substation on Malcom X might look like during the day.
Courtesy Image

— The Deluxe Inn site on the east side of Washington along Malcolm X and I496 was investigated extensively, but it would have required additional space to the east where the East Main Apartments complex is located; also, the Deluxe Inn the site is being reserved by the city for economic development. A Grand Rapids company has an option to build a long-term-stay hotel there.

— The Seventh Day Adventist site on St. Joseph Street. This site would have also required obtaining the sale of adjacent structures to have sufficient space. This site is on the downtown side of I496 and would require extending three transmission lines over I496 and St. Joe to reach the substation. This site is further from the transmission and distribution grid and would have removed this block from downtown development.

— Repurposing the current Eckert Substation site, which the Central Substation, along with four other new or rebuilt substations, is intended to replace. This site was rejected because it’s located in a floodplain and underground conduits underneath the railroad tracks are deteriorating.

A layout showing where the proposed power substation at Malcom X and Washington would be situated on the 5.5 acres of current park land.
Courtesy Image

EDITOR'S NOTE: Because of a reporting error, the original report omitted mention of the possibility of moving Scott from it's current location. This post has been updated to more accurately reflect that.