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BC Hydro proposes new schools and underground substations for downtown Vancouver

Kenneth Chan Jan 20, 2017 3:11 am 1,825

With aging electrical infrastructure and demand for electricity in the city projected to grow by 75% over the next 30 years, BC Hydro has proposed two major new infrastructure projects to meet growing demand and ensure electricity remains reliable.

While the electric utility normally builds above-ground substation structures, the high cost of land and the lack of space in the downtown Vancouver peninsula is forcing the company to plan for two new underground stations.

One substation will be built under Lord Roberts School Annex in the West End while another substation will be built under Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown. Any green space temporarily lost to permit construction will be later rebuilt and improved.

Both new substations will eventually replace the 1947-built Murrin substation on Main Street in Chinatown and the 1953-built Dal Grauer substation on Burrard Street next to Scotiabank Theatre.

The 1953-built Dal Grauer substation on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver. (Image by: Google Maps Streetview)

The 1947-built BC Hydro Murrin substation on Main Street in Chinatown. (Image by: Google Maps Streetview)

BC Hydro already has one underground substation at Cathedral Square on the northeast corner of Dunsmuir and Richards streets.

West End substation and two new elementary schools

According to public consultation documents, BC Hydro will fund the construction of a new school in Coal Harbour, to be completed as early as 2020, in order to accommodate the relocation of students at Lord Roberts Annex in the West End’s Nelson Park. When the Coal Harbour school is completed, demolition will begin on the old Lord Roberts Annex building.

A new school building will be constructed over the underground substation, and both could be operational by 2025.

Conceptual diagram of what an underground substation built under a new Lord Roberts Annex school building and playing field at Nelson Park in downtown Vancouver’s West End. (Image by: BC Hydro)

The Coal Harbour school will remain following the completion of the substation project and the reopening of Lord Roberts Annex to help support the growing enrolment demand in the downtown Vancouver peninsula. Daycare facilities could be incorporated into both new schools.

Artistic rendering of an underground substation built under a new Lord Roberts Annex school building and playing field at Nelson Park in downtown Vancouver’s West End. (Image by: BC Hydro)

Diagram showing proposed power infrastructure placements at Nelson Park. (Image by: BC Hydro)

Substation under Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown

The timeline for building a substation underneath Emery Barnes Park is significantly more elongated, with construction not slated to begin until 2036 for a completion in 2041. But over the interim, within the next few years, BC Hydro says it could provide the existing park configuration with additional amenities.

A substation at the park would occupy roughly half of the park’s subterranean area, largely on the Seymour Street side of the park where the large open grassy area is located.

Emery Barnes Park was recently completed over three construction phases, with the first phase completed in 2003 and the final phase in 2012.

Conceptual artistic rendering of Emery Barnes Park after the completion of the underground substation. (Image by: BC Hydro)

Diagram showing proposed power infrastructure placements at Nelson Park. (Image by: BC Hydro)

Improving the green space at Cathedral Square

The underground substation at Cathedral Square will not require any upgrades until 2050, but BC Hydro is proposing to work with the Vancouver Park Board to provide the municipal government with the funds needed to improve the green space, including the possibility of a redesign.

The park has been poorly maintained over the decades, and as a result is not well used.

Image by: BC Hydro

Image by: BC Hydro

Health concerns over electric and magnetic fields

BC Hydro says more than half of its 37 substations in Metro Vancouver north of the Fraser are within 100 metres to 200 metres of public spaces such as parks, schools, or shopping malls.

According to Health Canada, electric fields can be shielded using metal construction materials, and even buildings, trees, and burying power infrastructure can block electric fields. It also asserts that there is no evidence that low frequency measurements pose any health risks.

The province’s electric utility claims that the underground Cathedral Square substation emits a magnetic field between 2 mG to 100 mG, which is between 0.1% to 0.5% of the 2,000 mG exposure limit. Comparatively, dishwashers and washing machines emit approximately 20 mG, SkyTrain emits between 10 and 200 mG, and hairdryers and portable heaters emit approximately 300 mG.

“There is no conclusive evidence of any harm caused by exposures at levels found in Canadian homes and schools, including those located just outside the boundaries of power line corridors,” reads Health Canada’s website.The most recent researched performed by the World Health Organization and the US Department of Health and Services also agrees with the position, but a 2002 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified low frequencies as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

To date, most studies on the health impacts from close proximity to electric and magnetic fields from electric utility infrastructure have revolved around childhood leukaemia.

Initial public consultation on BC Hydro’s infrastructure renewal plans for downtown Vancouver last until February 28, and a decision to move forward to detailed planning and community consultation will be made at the end of March 2017.

Kenneth Chan
National Features Editor at Daily Hive, the evolution of Vancity Buzz. He covers local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation and infrastructure, and the travel industry. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]

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