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New substation signals a new energy era | OPINION

October 3, 2012 · 10:55 AM
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The scene: It is a dark and stormy night. Howling wind bowls trees over. Lightning bolts flash. Cars skid off wet pavement to knock down power poles. Homes go dark across east Marysville, sending householders groping toward shelves and drawers where, dependent on their state of memory and degree of organization, flashlights and candles might be found.

Service would be restored. It always is though, depending on the amount of damage, half-cooked suppers cool and precious episodes of Wipe-Out or America’s Got Talent go unwatched. The PUD’s promptness in restoring service depends on its ability to tap into nearby substations for power, a move that grows more difficult against a background of  increasing demand. And that’s why the substation on Highway 528 is being redone.

Day by day, commuters have noted the comings and goings of heavy equipment, the disappearance of all transformers but one, digging and filling and shoring up, the procession of special equipment. To the uninitiated, the job seemed overly heavy in equipment and manpower but since the Snohomish County PUD isn’t in the business of squandering construction dollars and knows all there is to know about updating substations, efficiency was at work that was invisible to passers-by.

Work on the substation is nearing completion. Because of its location, commuters have kept tabs on the progress since May when the old equipment was taken off line. It is such a complete re-do that almost nothing of the old facility remains. Think of it as comparable with a mechanic jacking up a radiator cap to attach a new car under it.

The old transformers served for fifty years, were tired and retired. Engineers established specifications and drew plans during 2011, then sat on them while the actual work was scheduled and the season of spring storms passed. It wouldn’t have been smart to tempt weather related outages at a time when the Marysville project plus three similar PUD substations were off-line for renovation.

Costs for the Marysville substation alone totaled $4 million. Across the 7,000 subscribers, it can serve, that $4 million breaks down to over $570 per subscriber. Consider the per-household cost the next time you wonder at the size of your electricity bill. Substation equipment is pricey. My non-technical mind compares the small patch of transforming and distributing hardware with a $4 million home and says, Wow!

In the past 40 years, the PUD has grown from serving 120,000 customers to 325,000, leaving a once-workable old system struggling to handle today’s load of energy distribution tasks. The re-vamped substation is geared to work with the system’s new $13 million Energy Control and Data Center that helps to bring the PUD up to speed with today’s standard for smart grids.

The quick answer to why they tossed out old and installed new equipment is the growing need to expand capacity. The two-pronged demand for more electricity comes from a growing number of residential and business subscribers and that each customer uses more electricity-consuming inventions. Check the displays at Walmart to see how much stuff has a cord and a plug.

Of course the change-over is designed to better protect us from power outages. When a violent storm knocks out one substation, information on how and why the circuits went down has to be processed into work orders. The new equipment’s fiber optic connection to the PUD’s diagnostic data center happens within the blink of an eye.

To achieve that, the Marysville project replaced five circuits with seven circuits, each able to serve 1,000 subscribers as before and each is programmed to automatically diagnose problems. Further, the Marysville equipment is programmed to work in conjunction with all thirty substations in the PUD service area which speeds switch-overs to cover outages when any part of the system goes off line.

This automation replaces a laborious manual system that, while it worked well in the past, couldn’t meet the needs of an increasingly energy-dependent society. It seems we’ve forgotten how to soldier on when traffic lights, computers, entertainment and communications shut down. Though the new stuff is touted as admirably efficient, I’m a little wistful about losing magical candlelight evenings spent with the family.

This year’s round of substation updates is a demonstration of the PUD’s response to challenges ahead. Facing new fleet standards of 54.5 mpg for vehicles (effective in 2025), garages across town will be re-wired to charge electric cars. And that, too, will be affected by the ongoing race to develop better batteries for cars. As the PUD finds itself energizing a growing fraction of the county’s rolling stock, energy distribution may again have to change.

How much demand transportation might place on the PUD’s capacity is the subject of wild guesses since no one can predict the future ratio between electric and petroleum vehicles. Nor can we predict how much alternative energy will flow through the PUD’s lines or the efficiency of new electric vehicles.

The one thing that is not guesswork is that electrical engineers will enjoy job security for years to come.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.

 

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