Pepco to boost power capacity as D.C. population rises

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Pepco's infrastructure upgrades would include reducing the amount of outdoor electrical equipment at the Champlain Street NW substation. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Major changes are coming to the region’s electrical grid over the next decade — and residents in Adams Morgan, Logan Circle and Columbia Heights will be among those on the front lines as construction projects come to their areas.

Pepco announced plans in May for a $720 million infrastructure project designed to bolster the city’s power following several years of substantial population growth, particularly in Northwest. The first portion of the project, set to kick off in 2018, involves up to four years of repair and expansion efforts at three existing substations in succession: 6601 New Hampshire Ave. in Takoma Park, Md.; 1001 Harvard St. NW in Columbia Heights; and 2119 Champlain St. NW in Adams Morgan. Part two of the project will bring a new substation near 1st and K streets NW in Mount Vernon Triangle, with construction tentatively scheduled between 2019 and 2022.

To connect existing and new substations, more than 10 miles of underground transmission lines will be installed in D.C. and Maryland beginning next year via underground trenching. That work is set to begin in March 2018 and last until June 2022. In Northwest, affected streets would include Georgia Avenue from New Hampshire Avenue south to Gresham Place, and the block of Sherman Avenue between Gresham and Harvard Street.

“Temporary disturbance and traffic/parking restrictions” will accompany the Capital Grid project, according to Pepco’s May 10 filing with the D.C. Public Service Commission. The utility plans to implement mitigation measures such as working during off-peak hours, though formal plans for such measures haven’t been worked out.

The project represents an ambitious effort by Pepco to tackle numerous aspects of the city’s electrical infrastructure simultaneously, according to Pepco president Donna Cooper. The utility has 49 substations in the city, with the most recent one built in 2006.

In an interview, Cooper emphasized that most of the plans aren’t imminent, and that they’re all subject to feedback from review boards and affected communities. “This project is very forward-thinking,” Cooper said.

Before any work can proceed, Pepco needs broad approval from the D.C. Public Service Commission and a construction go-ahead from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Some projects may involve the Historic Preservation Review Board as well. Because most of the project is within D.C.’s boundaries, the Maryland Public Service Commission will not be reviewing the plans, according to Pepco spokesperson Marcus Beal.

Once approvals are secured, work on the Takoma Park substation would begin next year and wrap up in 2022; repairs to the Harvard substation and construction of the Mount Vernon substation would run from June 2019 to June 2022; and expansion of the Champlain substation would last from December 2022 to June 2026.

The 1930s substation building on Champlain Street is designated as a historic landmark. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

The scope of work varies slightly from location to location. In Takoma Park, the focus will be on upgrading the substation structure and equipment to reduce the potential for outages and improve aesthetics. At the 1940s-era Harvard and 1930s-era Champlain substations, where the facades are designated as historic landmarks, Pepco will “proactively replace” aged equipment by demolishing and rebuilding existing structures, according to a planning document. At those two sites, Pepco will enclose more of the substations’ infrastructure, much of which is currently exposed to the elements, according to Cooper.

The end result of the Capital Grid project, according to Cooper, will be an interconnected system with a greater number of redundancies, which improve the utility’s ability to continue service even if one piece of the system temporarily goes offline. The new Mount Vernon substation, for instance, will also be connected to a substation that’s currently under construction at the Southwest Waterfront.

“It’s looking at this system need from a holistic perspective in the interest to execute a comprehensive plan that is completing what we have designed … to serve our customers at the highest level,” Cooper said.

Little in the way of neighborhood feedback has trickled out yet. But Ted Guthrie, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C (Adams Morgan), believes his constituents will be troubled, at least initially, by the prospect of a large-scale project at the Champlain Street substation. “I can’t imagine there won’t be people who are concerned about it,” Guthrie said in an interview.

Pepco’s infrastructure upgrades would include reducing the amount of outdoor electrical equipment at the Champlain Street NW substation. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

At this month’s ANC 1C meeting, Guthrie raised the possibility that some neighbors would decry possible health risks from a stronger presence of electricity in the neighborhood. Cooper preemptively countered those criticisms: “There are no safety issues associated with the substation; there are no health issues associated with the substation,” she told The Current.

If the Public Service Commission or zoning board declines to approve the project, Pepco would consider alternative solutions to addressing the need for a stronger power grid, Cooper said. The involved stations are “coming to the end of their useful life,” she said.

“Without being too optimistic, we are sure that the commission will see hopefully the value in these new substations being built with the support around the growth that’s taking place around the communities,” Cooper said. “It’s a definite need.”

Over the next few weeks, Pepco is hosting local open houses to introduce the project to neighbors. Adams Morgan residents will see Champlain Street plans on July 20 at Meridian International Center, 1630 Crescent Place NW, and July 25 at the Festival Center, 1640 Columbia Road NW. The Harvard Street plans will be on display on July 27 at Cesar Chavez Public High School, 770 Kenyon St. NW in Park View.