Powering Upstate: O'Connell Electric Co.'s Utility Station Upgrades the State's Electric Service

Line work on the Gardenville project was done over railroads, through wetlands and across a pond. Photos provided by John Miller, O'Connell Electric

If utility lines serve as the lifeblood to electrical systems, stations that feed those lines are the heart, so upgrading those stations to meet growing, changing demands is critical. However, only a limited number of contractors take on the complicated task of station rebuilds and renovations. As demands on New York State’s electric grid increase, one contractor has recently done several jobs to boost the capacity of existing systems, while bringing them up to date.

O’Connell Electric Co., Victor, N.Y., has completed some major utility construction projects that increase the flexibility and power to portions of New York State. Two recent builds are the Auburn Transmission Project in upstate New York, and a new substation built to support a 115,000-volt (V) system in Western New York known as the Gardenville Substation, which supplies power through 17 transmission lines to Western New York. O’Connell Electric was the prime contractor for both projects.

Gardenville Substation

Utility company National Grid’s $114 million Gardenville Substation project is part of a five-year effort by the company to upgrade infrastructure and adapt to diversity, with energy coming from renewable sources such as wind turbines. In Gardenville, that meant a replacement substation and multiple new transmission lines.

The construction team had to build the structure about 10 miles southeast of Buffalo to manage one-third of the region’s electricity. Area companies, including Ford Motor Co.’s stamping plant and a solar-panel facility for Tesla, depend on the power from this substation.

National Grid's Gardenville Substation near Buffalo, N.Y., provides one-third of the region's electricity.
National Grid's Gardenville Substation near Buffalo, N.Y., provides one-third of the region's electricity.

National Grid’s power flows in from several sources including a 230,000V station next door to the work project. The station’s transformers step the power down to 115,000V, and the system then passes power through 17 high-voltage transmission lines, which run through multiple towns and villages in Erie and Chautauqua Counties, said Michael Parkes, O’Connell Electric power division manager.

The original transmission line was built in the 1930s and has supplied power to thousands of homes and businesses in Western New York. The station was last upgraded in the 1950s and 1960s and was in need of renovation and new construction.

O’Connell Electric arrived on-site in October 2016. Employees had to work around the two existing stations known as the Old Gardenville and New Gardenville stations (together with the additional structure, they are known as the Gardenville station). While new construction is complete, work won’t be done until the two existing stations are deactivated and removed over the next two years.

The new station was erected where National Grid had previously kept storage and its mobile transformers. O’Connell installed 14 bays of 115-kilovolt (kV) breaker-and-a-half configuration, featuring four 115-kV capacitor banks and two circuits of 115-kV underground cable supplied by Southwire. The workers also added a 12,000-square-foot control building to house 200 relay and control panels. Altogether, O’Connell Electric’s site and drilling subcontractors poured more than 12,000 cubic yards of concrete and imported more than 75,000 tons of aggregate.

For line work, O’Connell Electric’s crew was responsible for rerouting eight transmission lines and erecting 41 A-frame receiving structures to support the lines at the station. The line work was done over Norfolk Southern railroads, through wetlands and across a pond. Throughout the site, O’Connell Electric installed more than 5,000 feet of cable trench and nearly 100 miles of 600V power and control cable. Electricians and linemen worked around existing 40-foot-high energized lines. After the old lines were moved out of the way, the control building was completed, then HVAC, cabling trays and the AC/DC station service switchgear and battery systems were installed.

The older lines were supported on double-circuit flexible and four-legged lattice steel structures. The EC coordinated with National Grid crews to transfer eight existing circuits from the older, live lines, onto the new lines supported by A-frames and strain bus, effectively bypassing the station and making room for the new control building. Finally, O’Connell Electric was tasked with removing the deteriorating structures and foundations once the conductors had been transferred to the new steel monopole towers.

The new lines were supported by single- and double-circuit 100-foot-high steel monopoles.

O'Connell Electric added a 12,000-square-foot control building to house 200 relay and control panels.
O'Connell Electric added a 12,000-square-foot control building to house 200 relay and control panels.

The team installed the power line foundations around the substation, along a pond and the railroad right-of-way. The construction crew built work pads on the shorelines to allow access for the drilling and transmission line equipment where the line ran over the pond.

Altogether, the company assembled 2 million pounds of steel for the job, which the steel vendor delivered in phases, just in time, as the work proceeded.

“One of the major challenges on this project was the need for all spoils [the waste generated from the project] to remain on-site,” said Thomas Brim, National Grid project manager.

National Grid required engineers to incorporate the additional spoils into the rebuild design, and the material was used in the construction of the new station.

“To accomplish this, an extensive spoils-management plan was built into the engineering design bid package,” Brim said.

Contractors had the option to use the plan provided or submit their own for approval; O’Connell Electric chose to use National Grid’s spoils plan. Spoils that were found to be unacceptable for new construction were used in final restoration berm construction around the perimeter of the site.

All the work had to be timed precisely to accommodate plans to transfer energy from the old system to the new one. The plan required all the transmission line foundations be installed in a specific sequence that coincided with the line migration and transmission line outage plan. National Grid and O’Connell Electric developed a schedule to accomplish this.

In addition to scheduling and staging challenges, crews had to consider safety. O’Connell Electric had a dedicated full-time safety officer on-site, as well as the company’s site supervisor, John Fox.

“Since there could be up to 75 electricians and linemen on-site at a time—including multiple trades such as engineers, iron workers and carpenters—safety required vigilant organizing,” Parkes said.

There also were concerns about local environmental impact. There were sensitive areas on all four sides around the site—three sides were wetlands, and the fourth included a residential neighborhood and a day care center.

“We had to be good neighbors at all times, and always consider how we were impacting the neighborhood,” Parkes said. “It all came down to coordination.”

This coordination included control of traffic entering and leaving the site, the movement of spoils, and the large equipment movement. That tight coordination paid off. The new refurbished lines and substation were energized in May 2018, six months ahead of schedule.

The Auburn Transmission Project had to meet stringent state environmental requirements to connect two substations with double- and triple-circuit transmission lines.
The Auburn Transmission Project had to meet stringent state environmental requirements to connect two substations with double- and triple-circuit transmission lines.

Auburn Transmission Line

The Auburn Transmission Project, 40 total miles of new transmission line construction, presented its own demands. Not only was the new line constructed to service two major utilities, but it also crosses through challenging terrain with strict environmental regulations required by the state of New York.

The project was a joint effort between National Grid and New York State Electric and Gas Corp. (NYSEG) and centered on connecting two substations with double- and triple-circuit transmissions lines.

In New York, a project of this size and scope for power production must meet stringent requirements. The permitting process is a significant administrative and work procedure, enforced by the state, to ensure a project is constructed in the best interest of the environment and the public. Hundreds of requirements dictate how the project will be built, what it will look like, as well as the schedule and environmental impacts. There is a strict reporting component, said David Emmi, O’Connell Electric operations manager.

The EC completed the project without deviating from the plan. Linemen and builders worked around land that was sensitive to animal species that included long-eared bats, bald eagles, bog turtles and osprey. In this case, O’Connell Electric teamed with Kenny Construction Co. and Ironwood Heavy Highway to accomplish the renovation of lines and structures.

The team used specialized matting to get through wetland areas as well as crossing two 40-foot stream crossings. Crews also had to clear thick overbrush and build 10 miles of semipermanent access roads to get concrete trucks up to the structures without affecting the environment.

The project took several months of planning. Eighty O’Connell Electric linemen made up the core team to complete the project. The company partnered with several other contractors to work around the potential for environmental damange, as well as to run the lines and build support structures.

“There’s a lot of inherent risk in construction,” Emmi said. “The name of the game is to eliminate risk or reduce it to the smallest manageable quantity.”

One strategy for managing risk was to use a former lumber yard as a material handling center for the project. Here, the team sorted pole sections, completed quality control inspections and kitted all of the materials. This kitting was critical in expediting the schedule. O’Connell Electric staff pre-assembled, wrapped and spotted pallets of materials before they were sent to the work site, eliminating the need for line crews to handle materials.

“We made a commitment to the customer to have the project complete within the condensed schedule, from 10 months down to six months,” Emmi said.

To accomplish this, O’Connell Electric used local resources to increase their qualified crew numbers. The new 115-kV transmission line met its energization date.

“The project entered O’Connell Electric’s books as one the largest transmission line construction projects to date,” Emmi said.

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