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BC Hydro to go underground to replace 2 aging urban substations

The BC Hydro and Power Authority is bypassing Vancouver's soaring real estate prices and going underground to replace two aging substations in British Columbia's largest city.

The provincial government-owned utility announced Jan. 20 its proposal to rent from the city the subsurface of a school and park while funding new schools, daycare spaces and park upgrades on top of the proposed substation. Downtown Vancouver is currently serviced by three substations: the underground Cathedral Square substation that was built in 1984, the Murrin substation in Chinatown built in 1947, and the Dal Grauer substation built in 1953. The Murrin and Dal Grauer substations are nearing the end of their lives.

"We expect demand for electricity to increase by 75% in downtown Vancouver over the next 30 years due to populations and business growth," BC Hydro spokeswoman Mora Scott said in a statement. "If we were to do nothing, we could begin experiencing brownouts in the next 10-12 years."

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BC Hydro President and CEO Jessica McDonald explained in a news release that the utility had to find a new approach to build in a city "where land is scarce and expensive." The traditional approach of building substations aboveground would have meant taking up almost a city block and displacing other needs such as housing in a fast-growing city.

"By literally planting our substations underground, the available budgets and the land above can be used to grow community benefits, whether that is a school, a park or a playing field," said McDonald. "We think the 'seed' concept is an innovation that makes this livable city even more leading on a global scale."

In addition to new underground substations under the current Lord Roberts School Annex in the West End by 2025 and under Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown by 2041, BC Hydro's plan envisions upgrades by 2050 to the existing Cathedral Square substation. According to Scott, it will take two to three years to build the underground substations. The Lord Roberts School Annex will be demolished.

Underground urban substations are rare and expensive. Aside from its own, BC Hydro noted one in Anaheim, Calif., and another under construction in Toronto. City-owned Toronto Hydro Corp.'s Copeland Transformer Station is expected to be in service this year at a cost of C$195 million to head off projected overloading at four of the city's five downtown substations by 2022.

As part of a community outreach effort, BC Hydro will contribute "significant funds" to the Vancouver Park Board that are to be used to "provide other potential benefits, such as a new park or recreational facilities." The utility also intends to fund a transformation overhaul of Cathedral Square Park by 2020 to make it a "desirable place to visit"; the refurbishment of Emery Barnes Park by 2039; and the construction of a new school in Coal Harbour by 2020, along with green space, a daycare and a new school in the West End to replace the Lord Roberts School Annex by 2025. Additional funds at the request of the community may go toward amenities at Emery Barnes Park.

Still in the public consultation phase, BC Hydro's proposal is dependent on municipal approval. The utility, Vancouver School Board and Vancouver Park Board are seeking comment on the plans through Feb. 28, and a decision on whether to proceed with the plan is expected to be made by the end of March.