UPDATE: BC Hydro will not go ahead with two planned underground substations in downtown Vancouver after the city said the process had been too rushed.

BC Hydro is proposing the construction of two new electrical substations in downtown Vancouver over the next 35 years, but their locations may surprise you.

The electric utility says demand in the downtown core is expected to grow over 75 per cent over the next 30 years due to densification and an increase in population, and new infrastructure will be needed.

To meet the growing demand, BC Hydro is proposing to build two new, underground substations, one beneath Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown and the other beneath Nelson Park in the West End.

The Nelson Park underground substation would come online in 2025, and the Emery Barnes Park underground substation in 2041.

Emery Barnes Park
Rendering of the proposed Emery Barnes Park substation, showing the three vent stacks on the left side of the image.
Nelson Park substation
Rendering of Nelson Park, with the replacement school and substation vents shown.

Proposal likely comes as big surprise

Although the substations won’t be operational for decades, the proposal is likely a surprise to people living near the parks.

In exchange for the new underground substations, BC Hydro is proposing the construction of two new schools downtown: one in Coal Harbour, which could be complete by 2020, and a new school and daycare space in the West End at the site of Lord Roberts Annex, to be complete by 2025.

BC Hydro says building the new substations under the parks will allow it to provide community benefits such as the new schools.

“Having to build for the future in a city where land is scarce and expensive, challenged BC Hydro to find a new approach,” said Jessica McDonald, President & CEO, BC Hydro. “By literally planting our substations underground, the available budgets and the land above can be used to grow community benefits, whether that is a school, a park or a playing field.”

Construction of a new substation under Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown would take five years, and would begin in 2036, with completion in 2041. During this time, parts of the park would be unavailable for use.

New public washrooms would be added to the park as part of the construction, as well as three new above-ground vents for the substation. The locations of the washrooms and vents are depicted in the image below.

Emery Barnes Park substation
Map showing the location of the proposed underground substation in Emery Barnes Park.
Nelson Park substation
Map showing the location of the proposed underground substation in Nelson Park.

Concerns about EMF emissions

Electric and magnetic fields (EMF) are emitted by underground substations, but the levels are extremely low and not considered a health risk.

According to Health Canada and World Health Organization, there is no evidence of any health risks below the recognized exposure limit of 2000 mG (or 200 uT).

At the park above BC Hydro’s existing underground substation at Cathedral Square, magnetic field measurements range from 2 mG to 100 mG (or 0.2 to 10 uT), or approximately 0.1% to 5% of these conservative exposure limits.

For comparison, dishwashers and washing machines emit around 20 mG (2 uT), SkyTrain ranges between 10-200 mG (1-20 uT), and hairdryers and portable heaters emit around 300 mG (30 uT).

The existing Cathedral Square substation in downtown Vancouver at Dunsmuir and Richards would be upgraded in 2050, but before that, the existing park above the substation would be revamped, to “make it a desirable place to visit,” according to BC Hydro.

Two other existing underground substations, the Murrin substation in Chinatown (built 1947) and the Dal Grauer substation (built 1953) would both be decommissioned, and the land presumedly would be redeveloped.

Large package of benefits proposed

Here’s a list of all the community benefits proposed by BC Hydro as part of the proposal, which is referred to as SEED:

  • A complete transformation of Cathedral Square Park to make it a more desirable place to visit (2020)
  • Possible added amenities to Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown, if requested by the community (2020)
  • New school in Coal Harbour (2020)
  • New school, daycare spaces and green space in the West End (2025)
  • New underground substation in the West End (2025)
  • Refurbishment of Emery Barnes Park (2039)
  • New underground substation under Emery Barnes Park (2041)
  • Upgrades to the existing underground Cathedral Square substation (2050)
  • Significant funds that the Vancouver Park Board could use to provide other potential benefits, such as a new park or recreational facilities
BC Hydro seed project
Timeline of BC Hydro’s seed project, which will bring two new underground substations to downtown Vancouver.

Decision on whether to move forward expected soon

A decision on whether or not to proceed with BC Hydro’s proposal is expected to be made by the end of March 2017, which is a pretty tight timeline considering the proposal was just made public January 20, 2017. BC Hydro says it is working with the Vancouver School Board and the Vancouver Park Board to “shape SEED over the coming months.”

UPDATE: BC Hydro will not go ahead with two planned underground substations in downtown Vancouver after the city said the process had been too rushed.