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Nashville Electric focuses on aesthetics for substation

With an eye towards aesthetics, Nashville Electric Service is taking the extra step to build a screening structure for a new substation it plans to build in downtown Nashville, marking the latest example of public power utilities working to minimize the eyesore aspect of electric infrastructure.

Construction on the Nashville Electric structure in downtown Nashville is in the early stages of construction, according to Daniel Johnson, engineering supervisor at Nashville Electric. The site is on premium property in downtown Nashville and is not a good place to put a traditional open-air substation, he said.

The site will be the second substation for which Nashville Electric has built an enclosure to improve the aesthetics of the site. The first was for a new substation that was built near the city’s convention center about 10 years ago. “That became our flagship,” Johnson said. It is no longer viable to put a standard, exposed open air substation in a congested downtown, network served, he said.

Workers at Nashville Electric Service substation project

The structure being built by Aubrey Silvey Enterprises (substation EPC contractor) in the North Gulch neighborhood is for a substation that will replace a 70-year old substation about a block away. Nashville has been booming for the past decade or so and with the increase in load, the utility had to do something, Johnson said. The old substation occupied about three-quarters of an acre and had three 69-kV lines and three transformers and eleven distribution circuits. The new substation will have four transformers and the ability to add a fourth transmission line and an additional 13 distribution circuits.

The current schedule calls for the contractor to install all of the substation equipment by in April 2021 and then hand the facility over to Nashville Electric, which plans to cut over the transmission and distribution lines one by one.

The structure, which will shield the equipment from public view, is expected to be finished in August or September of next year. The structure includes a decorative wall, overlapping metal panels and a decorative element still to be determined.

The substation site is on Nashville Electric’s main campus and will take up some of the parking spaces there, so the new structure will also include a parking deck over the substation. The design work is being handled by the Nashville office of Ohio-based Moody Nolan Architects.

Nashville’s building code requires active ground floor use for any new structure, but it would have been a small footprint for a retail space, Johnson said. “We are a metro agency, maintaining a level of autonomy,” he said. “The city was looking at us like any other private developer.”

So, Nashville Electric applied for a variance and in the end won it, in part, because NES agreed to underground two blocks of overhead lines along the edge of the site to improve the streetscape.

In the end, the enclosing structure will not only improve the aesthetics of the site but having the substation out of the elements and further from public access will also improve reliability and safety, Johnson said.

Going forward, Johnson said new substations in more rural and industrial areas would likely be built in the common open-air design. In urban areas the decision to house a substation would likely be made on a case by case basis, he said.

Nashville Electric is not alone in the public power community in its efforts to make new substations more visually appealing.

In New Mexico, Farmington Electric Utility System housed a new substation in a structure that mimics an ancient pueblo.

And in Washington State, Seattle City Light housed a substation behind a glowing façade with an elevated walkway and an off-leash dog park.

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