By: Tom Lambert

A 15-year journey to bring advanced technology and improved energy reliability to downtown Grand Rapids should be completed next summer.

Several hundred state-wide reliability projects — including improving and building substations and enhancing our high and low voltage distribution systems — are scheduled or underway. We plan on spending $100 million annually on reliability projects. The projects, which range from $10,000 to more than $5 million each, will help power Michigan’s progress by continuing to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers.

The Ellsworth Substation, a fixture in downtown Grand Rapids providing power to nearly 2,200 customers, has undergone a dramatic $15.4 million overhaul, including installation of four new, large transformer banks – the heart of the substation – along with some of the most modern indoor switching equipment – which provides enhanced protection and allows reliable power to flow between multiple circuits — on our grid.

There were some major milestone improvements along the way – most notably replacement of the entire Fulton Street duct bank system from Market Avenue to Division Street in 2012. The original duct system was installed in 1902 and replaced on its 110th anniversary in 2012.

“We take our responsibility seriously in providing safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers in Grand Rapids and around the state,” said Guy Packard, Vice President of Electric Operations. “We are proud of the  new reliability projects around Grand Rapids that will help power Michigan’s progress for the next 100 years.”

With a substantial annual budget in place, other reliability projects will continue well beyond 2022 in Grand Rapids.

Other key reliability projects taking place around the state include installation of automatic transfer reclosers (ATRs) on our overhead lines. These ATRs will help restore outages in a quicker, more efficient manner.

In Grand Rapids, the Ellsworth project alone will minimize the number of customers impacted and duration of most major outages when compared to similar past event, such as the well-known October 2017 storm.

Our crews helped restore power during that outage, which was due to equipment failure at the Wealthy Street Substation and left 8,000 customers without power. If this occurs again on the new and improved system, the energy load can simply be shifted to a different transformer within the Ellsworth Substation.

This project, coupled with other work taking place around Grand Rapids, will drastically improve downtown’s energy resiliency. These upgrades include:

LaGrave Substation

  • Serves: 574 customers, including Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Hospital, Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center and numerous bars, restaurants, and businesses on the east side of downtown.
  • Improvements: Installation of new high voltage cables and control center monitoring technology, which allows us to recognize reliability issues and respond accordingly.

Sinclair Substation

  • Serves: 1,711 customers, including high-profile medical and educational buildings along the Medical Mile on Michigan Street as well as a number of the historic homes on Heritage Hill.
  • Improvements: Replaced or upgraded all circuit exit breakers.  

Fairbanks Substation

  • Serves: 555 customers, including businesses in the new Innovation Park located at Monroe and the Highway I-196 overpass.
  • Improvements: Replacing underground power lines to increase load transfer capacity.

Additional Upgrades:

  • Relocation of underground conduits and cables associated with the Market Street Sanitary Sewer Relocation project near the Grand River.
  • Installation of new primary service conductors to the new North American Perrigo Headquarters.
  • Complete rebuild of our Weston Commerce vault structure, including all new conductors and services to nearby buildings.
  • Multiple installations in the entire Grand Rapids area to provide reliable power to new 5G cell phone towers. This will help cell phone and Internet service to the entire state

The downtown system has proven to be extremely reliable due to limited overhead exposure, said Ken Bindschatel, Substation Maintenance Manager.

Each circuit – from 120 volts to 46,000 volts – are housed in underground vaults, manholes and conduits, which limits the exposure to exterior forces.

“This helps protect us from major storms and third-party damages,” said Bindschatel.

Underground lines, however, are more expensive and challenging to inspect and repair, which is why overhead lines are still more common throughout the state.

While our entire grid will never be underground, we will continue to evaluate other underground opportunities.

“At the end of the day, it’s our top priority to keep the lights on for all of our customers,” said Packard. “And we will continue to work with Grand Rapids and other communities we serve with not only this mission, but also to help them grow, by introducing emerging technology with proven results whenever and wherever we can.”