How a New Substation in Winnipeg is Powering the City’s Downtown Core

A new substation in downtown Winnipeg opened with little fanfare this past September. After all, a sparkling skyscraper it is not.

The Adelaide Substation, located in the city’s storied Exchange District, is essentially an open-air courtyard housing electrical hardware encircled by sand-coloured limestone walls. It was designed to blend in with the surrounding heritage buildings. “You could walk by it and not even notice that it’s a substation,” says Bruce Owen, spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro. 

Don’t be fooled by its somewhat unassuming architecture, though. It’s a crucial piece of the city’s current renewal and future growth plans for its downtown.

Designed and constructed by a consortium led by GE Digital Energy, the substation “steps down” high-voltage electricity (66,000 volts), decreasing it to a level (12,000 volts) that can be distributed to businesses and residents in the area. It’s far from the “traditional, old substation with that familiar hum” of high-voltage electricity, Owen adds.

Adelaide image 1
The Adelaide’s Substation was built to blend into the city’s historic Exchange District.

This $35.5-million, 66-kilovolt, gas-insulated facility features state-of-the-art technology that not only results in an exceptionally quiet operation, but also makes the city’s electrical grid more reliable and, more importantly, better able to meet growing energy demands in the decades to come. “We don’t build these with just the next 10 years in mind; we plan for the next 75 to 100 years,” Owen says.

A growing city

If any city needs this kind of upgrade, it’s Winnipeg. Since the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets came back to town in 2011, the city’s downtown core has been booming – something municipal governments have tried to make happen for decades. For at least 41 game nights a year, thousands of people pour into the area, eating at restaurants and frequenting bars near the Bell MTS Place, where the Jets play. Other events, including concerts and downtown festivals, attract the city’s masses as well.

Winnipeg’s downtown is only going to expand further from here. Several new buildings are currently under construction, most notably True North Square, a $400-million, multi-high-rise project. The one-million-square-foot development, which is expected to be completed sometime in 2018, is spearheaded by True North Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Jets, and is part of a broader urban renewal trend happening not just in Winnipeg, but in many North American downtowns.

Until the Adelaide Substation opened, the city had been providing energy to its downtown via the King Street Substation, which was built in 1911. Some upgrades to the King Street facility have occurred over the years, but the combination of a more popular downtown and aging infrastructure meant that it needed to be decommissioned. “It’s like keeping your beloved, 510 Datsun on the road year after year,” Owen says. “At some point, you have to replace it.”

Replacing the substation is also part of an ambitious city-wide renewal plan. Manitoba Hydro aims to spend about $470 million refurbishing or replacing several of its 97 Winnipeg substations by 2020 as part of its “20-by-20” program, says Owen. The project is a recognition that many of the city’s most crucial pieces of the electrical grid are supported by infrastructure several decades old.

A smarter substation

The Adelaide Substation, which distributes power to buildings in and around downtown, isn’t just a milestone for Winnipeg, it’s also a ground-breaking project for GE. The ultra-modern substation is the company’s first in Canada after establishing itself as an innovator in the design and construction of electricity infrastructure in other jurisdictions. “After working on numerous substation projects around the world, we are very proud to showcase our expertise and regional supply chain capabilities with our first substation project in Canada,” says Emanuel Bertolini, GE Grid Solution’s general manager for global projects.

While GE oversaw design, Edmonton-based HB Construction built the high-tech substation, which features some of the latest advances in electricity-distribution technology, including three 30-megavolt ampere transformers, 66-kilovolt gas-insulated switchgear and 12-kilovolt metal-clad switchgear.

Like substations of old, the equipment transforms high-voltage electricity into a lower voltage usable for consumption, and then distributes it to the surrounding area. Only the new equipment is more reliable and efficient. For example, the gas-insulated switchgear allows for a more compact design, so the overall footprint of the substation is reduced. Less space is needed to handle more electrical load, Owen says.

As well, the Adelaide Substation was built to serve not just the energy demands of today, but of the future. It has the potential to double its electrical load, while new technologies, such as intelligent electronic devices that allow hardware, including transformers, to “talk to each other,” will enable more reliable distribution of electricity, says Jade Ewasiuk, operations manager at Teshmont Consultants, a company that GE hired to design the substation’s protection, control and automation systems.

New smart-grid technologies are found throughout the substation’s design, including essential protection relays preventing transformers from overloading. “In the old days, substations had relays that would trip a breaker to protect the equipment,” says Ewasiuk, adding that this would shut off electricity, which could take hours to restore. “Today, the protection relays have computers connected to a fibre optic network that protects hardware like they’re designed to do, but the technology also tells the system operator it’s about to trip.”

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A rare look at the Adelaide Substation’s equipment. 

If the utility knows something’s about to go awry, it can quickly act to prevent a prolonged interruption in service. “One of the decisions might be to let the transformer trip and have an outage, or it could be to move the load to another transformer with extra capacity,” says Ewasiuk. “You’ve got information faster and you can make smarter decisions to keep the grid going.”

With the substation hidden away, the city’s businesses and residents won’t see what’s fuelling daily downtown life. However, they can take comfort in knowing that even though Winnipeg’s core is growing faster than it has in a while, the power will stay on for years to come.

“When you turn on the TV, you expect it to happen,” says Manitoba Hydro’s Owen. “It’s that sense of reliability that forms the basis of our planning, so future versions of ourselves will plug in whatever it is we will be using decades from now, and we know it will work all the time, every time.”

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