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Substation hardening shouldn’t mean building a fort

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it is possible to harden (secure) a power substation and improve its aesthetics at the same time. Why worry about aesthetics? Simple, the relentless march of development and per-urbanization has electric co-ops, public power, and other utilities scrambling to accommodate encroaching development. Substations that were once hidden down isolated country roads or bounded by forests and fields are now surrounded by housing and commercial development. As they look to revitalize outdated and overtaxed substations to better serve these growing areas; including improving or replacing outmoded security systems and corroding fences, utilities are forced to explore innovative upgrade choices and security options that they haven’t previously considered or even imagined.

To deal with these new issues, utilities are employing options that range from cosmetic coverups to outright station relocation. But the most common strategy is to upgrade or replace the existing substation at the current location and harden the site against breach or attack with enhanced security. The irony is that many of these improvements solve one problem only to create others. The new problems range from operational issues to aesthetics. Utilities often learn the hard way that poorly designed or installed station security elements can create a host of operational, logistical, and maintenance nightmares, but that's a topic for another conversation.

Hardening substations and other facilities can create a look that is more “military compound” than “community infrastructure”, and no one wants to live next to something that looks like a walled fortress or prison camp. In general, homeowners and businesses often have unrealistic expectations of what utilities can and can't do with their infrastructure, and people can be overly sensitive to such issues, so it’s not a good policy to nonchalantly give them something else to get mad about. Just as having armed security and overpoweringly austere ballistic-hardening in your office lobby can cause people to question how dangerous visiting your office really is, blatantly over-fortifying substations can have people questioning the safety of the neighborhood while others will be appalled at having to live with an “industrial monstrosity” situated in the midst of their community.

Luckily, many of the problems of peri-urban encroachment are resolvable. It’s all in the approach the utility takes with the new community and the judicious use of innovative site hardening strategies. First, realize that there may be a core group within the community will not be satisfied with anything less than relinquishing the site and relocating the station. If ignored or mismanaged, this inflexible group can hold any effort to assimilate the station into the new community hostage in an “all or nothing” standoff. Left unchecked, they can create a “them against us” atmosphere within the community that leaves lasting animosity toward the utility. This in-and-of-itself is an important topic for another time.

The good news is that it is possible to harden substations from theft, intrusion, and urban sprawl without sacrificing aesthetics. The bad news is that upgraded approaches and aesthetics can be costly and complicated if not proficiently designed and employed. For example, InDev has been engaged to help carry out a substation hardening project that has a multi-use development being built on the adjoining property. We’re currently overseeing the completion of the first phase of a three-part station hardening project. The station site includes a 220 kV / 12 kV substation intertied with a 16 unit generation plant. The two facilities are separated internally by the original station fence, and the entire facility was surrounded by an aging 7 ft. a chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbwire. Your typical station fence setup. The facility was constructed in two stages, with the substation was being built first and the peaking-plant added in the early 90’s. When the substation was built it was a rural area surrounded by fields. The closest house was almost a mile away and a cluster of industries further down the two-lane road where its nearest neighbors. Fast forward 30 years and the situation is dramatically different. The adjacent property on the north and west sides of the station is being developed into a large mixed-use complex filled with multi-story townhouses, some will be less than a dozen yards of the perimeter fence, and will include a shopping center and a hotel. At the front (east side) of the substation/generator site the two-lane rural road is now a four-lane thoroughfare and on its south side are railroad tracks with light-industrial development on the opposite side of the tracks. When first approached by the developer to discuss incorporating the existing substation into the development, the developer asked in all sincerity, “can’t you just move all this (substation and generator plant) down the road somewhere?” Their next question was “what are you going to do to cover this up or hid it?”

The utility in previous years had only a few breakins of skateboarders breaching the fence to use the concrete aprons at the generation plant and people using the front of the facility as an impromptu parking area. The new development will only exacerbate these problems. If left as is the utility can expect the property to be used for long-term parking for cars, campers, and boats with a significant increase in foot traffic in and around the property. While copper theft is not expected to increase, the danger of unauthorized entry and vandalism will be significant. Townhomes mean families and families mean children. Children are naturally adventurous, and teenagers especially tend to be mischievous, habitually looking for unique places to loiter and gather. Left to their-own-devices youngsters will explore and experiment without considering the consequences or danger. And for them, the draw of the substation can simply be too great a challenge to ignore. The cases of unauthorized entry in the past took place were when the nearest homes were a mile away, the utility is dreading what will happen when they’re only yards away.

In looking at how best to secure their facility and improve its aesthetics, the utility looked at several options. What they found was a staggering and somewhat confusing array of options with costs that ranged as dramatically as their visual impact and effectiveness, and they found that each option had significant drawbacks. At this point, InDev was called in. We had originally conducted a security assessment of the utility’s substations and they asked InDev to develop a cost-effective approach to perimeter security for this site.

The result was a comprehensive approach that incorporated elements of several individual options that the utility had been considering. The solution employed will replace the existing fence along the railroad track with a 10 ft black vinyl fence with coiled razor tape, install a 12 ft decorative fiberglass composite barrier along the two sides adjacent to the new development, leaving the refurbished existing fence in place behind it, and refurbish the existing interior fences. The final piece to the comprehensive approach is a new steel palisade fence along the road frontage of the generator building with sliding gates that will add another layer of security to the property. It will cut down on the amount of roadside occupiable space, while allowing easy station access for crews and safe fuel deliveries.

This new approach, even with the addition of a new palisade front fence section (it wasn’t part of the original options that the utility considered), is approximately 30% less than favored choice from the original estimates. The new composite barrier fence, when finished, will be more aesthetically pleasing than chain-link or a rough concrete sound barrier, and it will provide a greater line-of-sight barrier than chain-link or a steel palisade as well as act as a sound dampener for the generator plant. The creation of two-layers of cost-effective fencing along the sides adjacent to the new development will make any attempted entry extremely difficult. The existing interior fence has been refurbished and coiled razor wire employed creating a severe interior barrier. The exterior composite wall can be painted, and the utility is looking to allow local artisans access to it as an outdoor canvas. The new and expanded gated roadside area will prevent people from misusing utility property for personal use, while also providing the utility with a safe new parking and staging area within a secured perimeter.

The approach InDev developed works well for this particular site, but it’s important to remember that there is no carbon copy format for effectively hardening a facility in an urbanizing area. The steps you will take depend on a myriad of factors and variables. And the solutions will be different if the facility’s new neighbors are industrial, commercial, residential, or mixed. If access roads are two-lanes with limited travel or they’ve been upgraded to a major highway. Or if the amount of foot traffic is expected to increase, along with a host of other issues and considerations.

InDev recommends that you include the experience and expertise of a security specialist at the beginning of a substation hardening process. Look for a consultant that has a history of work with co-ops and/or other utilities and has extensive substation security experience. This will help you avoid costly mistakes and operational issues as well as provide an outside perspective that may reveal options you hadn’t considered yet. The final product will be a functional, serviceable, and aesthetically pleasing substation to help you power the community well into the future.

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