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Powering a Sustainable Future: Christenson Electric worked through wintry weather and more on the Gilchrist Substation

By Susan Bloom | Jun 13, 2024
Gilchrist Substation

The new Gilchrist, Ore., Substation is a state-of-the-art facility constructed to support the region’s growing energy needs. 

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The new Gilchrist, Ore., Substation is a state-of-the-art facility constructed to support the region’s growing energy needs. From its compact three-acre footprint to the meticulous installation of transformers, breakers and distribution feeders, the Gilchrist Substation sets new standards in the field of power infrastructure. None of it would have been possible without the construction and installation expertise from Christenson Electric Inc., Portland, Ore.

 Founded in 1945, “Christenson Electric has about 380 employees and primarily serves the states of Washington and Oregon,” said Ryan Boell, Christenson’s high-voltage division manager and project manager for the Gilchrist Substation. 

“We’re a full-service commercial and industrial contractor specializing in everything from low- and medium-voltage applications to projects involving renewable energy and more, but we also perform overhead line and substation work, which is fairly unique in our industry. We take pride in offering a total turnkey solution.”

That breadth of expertise came in handy when La Pine, Ore.-based Midstate Electric Cooperative, a utility company serving 17,000 member-owners in four central Oregon counties, invited several area contractors to bid on construction of their new 115- to 69- to 25-kilovolt (kV) substation in the rural town of Gilchrist, which has a population of about 300. 

“They put out a solicitation/RFP to a small group of contractors, and we were awarded the project in spring 2021,” Boell said.

“We’d worked with Midstate Electric before by providing dock crews/supplemental labor to a couple of their line-related projects, but this represented our first substation project for them,” he said. “In addition, this was a ‘greenfield substation’ in that it involved new construction from the ground up. Based on its voltage configuration, it involved three transformers and five distribution feeders, stepping transmission loads down to usable distribution voltage levels.”

While Boell noted that Gilchrist is a small town with one corner store and a lumber mill and is situated in a region of Oregon that’s equally rural, “this substation was intended to add the capacity for more power as the area’s population and industrial base grow in the future,” he said.

surge arrestor installation in substation

A Christenson Electric crew member installs a surge arrester on the south bay dead-end structure of the Gilchrist Substation site.

In-house expertise

“Once the contract was executed, we were there within a week to start the job,” Boell said of the project, which represented a first for his team in terms of the scope of activities they took on. 

“While we’ve done a handful of substations this size, in this case we did everything in-house. This included clearing the site in Gilchrist through a process known as a ‘clear and grub,’ in which we scratch off the rough surface and do a cut-and-fill to bring the land down to a more level, workable grade. 

“We then determined our control points of the yard and laid out foundations for the 3.03-acre substation,” he said.

“We did all of the concrete foundation work, too, which included making up all of the forms, placing rebar and pouring all of the concrete. We poured a total of 71 foundations, which included equipment pads and supports for all of the switch and bus structures.”

According to Boell, the project involved four to 10 Christenson Electric crew members of all specialties (e.g., civil, overhead, etc.) at any given time. In addition to installing three transformers with oil containment systems, he said, “other equipment we installed at the site included two 72.5-kV and five 25-kV circuit breakers, two 115-kV circuit switchers, and a range of disconnect switches and metering/instrument transformers. Below grade, we installed around 20,000 feet of ground grid and thousands of feet of conduit.” 

Weather patterns

While Midstate Electric had originally slated this project for completion in November 2021, Boell confirmed that Mother Nature had other plans.

“This part of Oregon is a high desert area that gets very cold and dry, and when it snows, it snows, especially in the higher elevations. That whole winter of 2021–2022, the site kept getting buried in what felt like a constant foot of snow here and there. The average low temperatures during the winter in that area are in the 20s, and our team members are prepared for the cold—but with the site being at a 4,500-foot elevation, it just kept on snowing all winter,” he said. “Much of the work we were trying to complete was on or below ground, and a lot of our efforts that winter ended up being focused on clearing snow so that we could access and perform our work.”

While unrelenting wintry weather stood out as the biggest challenge on the project, pandemic-related product and shipping delays and other obstacles outside of the Christenson team’s control worked to push the project’s completion date out beyond the original planned in-service date.

“Most of the major equipment we needed was on time because Midstate Electric provided it to us and had preordered it, but our contacts there reached out to us for help in finding some odds and ends along the way, such as bus and ground fittings,” Boell said. 

“During that time, it became hard to get some everyday commodity products that we wouldn’t have thought twice about getting before, but we were able to help the utility by sourcing those items from suppliers of ours ... or by suggesting alternative products that we have visibility to.”

conduit support in substation installation

A view of the 25-kV riser structure support footings and getaway conduits on the construction site

As for their crew members, “everyone traveled to the project site and either stayed in trailers or in a hotel nearby because nobody lived in that area,” said Boell, who remotely oversaw the project’s day-to-day equipment, manpower and material needs, as well as change order and customer communication activities, with in-person visits to the site a couple times a month.

“Each discipline—which included civil, overhead and inside wireman work—had its own foreman,” he said. “On this job, Midstate Electric performed all of their control cabling and panel work within the control building, although we supplied a wireman to support this effort and continued with finishing touches in the yard.”

A testament to creativity and precision

Completed on-budget in August 2022, Boell stated that “the Gilchrist Substation will provide an overall increase in electrical capacity for the area, preparing for future loading and overall demand on the grid and making their system more reliable.” 

Among lessons learned, Boell said that the possibility of inclement weather will inform all project management activities from now on.

“Scheduling and time of year are key, and we’ll be looking closer at project dates in the future,” he said. “We experienced more snow than usual for the area over that winter, and though we worked around it and kept going, it’s good to include more time in the schedule to account for those unexpected conditions and unproductive hours if construction must go on. 

“This project was also among our first in which we self-performed our civil work (including site work, concrete, layout of foundations, and all of the rock work in the yard),” Boell added. “We’ve previously utilized subcontractors for that scope of work, but this time we did it with our own people and equipment, so it was significant for us. We learned that we have all of the skill in-house to successfully complete this work, and since then we’ve done several other projects just like this. It’s made us more competitive in this market and able to say with confidence that we’re a totally ground up and turnkey operation.

“Overall, we’re extremely proud of this project and the commitment to quality workmanship and attention to detail that went into it,” he said. “The substation and surrounding property are nestled into the trees and are very pleasing to the eye; the finished site is a very clean and organized yard that seamlessly integrates into the surrounding landscape and stands as a nice piece of craftsmanship.

“We built it to Midstate Electric’s design and they’re proud of it, too,” Boell said. “When the project concluded, we went to lunch with our colleagues from Midstate Electric and they said that it was one of the best-looking substations in their system.

“The variable terrain and complex technical requirements on this job required careful planning and precise execution, and the Gilchrist Substation stands as testament to the creativity and expertise of Christenson Electric’s entire construction team working in collaboration with Midstate Electric Cooperative. 

“Serving as a critical hub for power distribution, the Gilchrist Substation has not only brought reliable electricity to the region, but has also paved the way for a more sustainable future. We’re grateful to Midstate Electric for the opportunity to show what we can do,” Boell said.

Header image: The completed Gilchrist Substation after Christenson demobilized from the site. All photos courtesy of Christenson Electric.

About The Author

BLOOM is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at [email protected].

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