National Grid's future is rising in West Seneca.
The utility is in the midst of a $114 million upgrade of its Gardenville electrical station, a vital element of the region's power network.
The station, located off Indian Church Road, handles about one-third of the region's electricity needs. Its customers include the Ford Motor Co. stamping plant in Woodlawn and Tesla's new solar panel facility in RiverBend.
The West Seneca project, which is still under construction, is dominated by 50-foot high steel towers, thick aluminum wires and giant circuit breakers. National Grid hopes to energize the new 115,000-volt complex next spring.
Once it is ready, National Grid will start dismantling the existing 115,000-volt facility operating elsewhere on the property. The old infrastructure looks dated in contrast to the clean, gray steel looming nearby. Appearances aside, National Grid officials say the old facility has served the region quite reliably for decades.
But the time had come for an upgrade, said Kenneth M. Kujawa, National Grid's regional director. The Gardenville station was built in the 1930s, with major component upgrades and replacements in the 1950s and 1960s.
"When we're talking to our stakeholders and our customers and the Public Service Commission about investing in our infrastructure, this is what it's all about," Kujawa said during a recent tour. "We need to be able to respond to the marketplace, respond to the fact that our customers have higher expectations of us when it comes to reliability."
The project is part of a five-year, $3 billion investment by National Grid in its energy networks in upstate New York. Kujawa said the utility has to plan for the future and adapt to a changing energy market. For instance, more energy from renewable sources, such as wind turbines, is flowing into the system.
The new facility ensures National Grid can accommodate customers' increased power needs, especially as some areas, like the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, continue to grow, Kujawa said. The utility also plays a role when companies consider the Buffalo Niagara region for new projects.
"We're part of the economic development equation," Kujawa said. "If a company is looking to locate here or if a company is looking to expand, having the ability to serve that incremental load is important. By having it ready and available, it hopefully puts National Grid and the region for that matter in a position to capture that growth, whether it comes from an existing company or a new company."
National Grid distributes power that flows into the Gardenville site from a variety of sources. There is a 230,000-volt facility next door that is not part of the upgrade. Transformers "step down" the power to the 115,000-volt level, for use by the facility that will be replaced. The 115,000-volt complex then transmits power across Western New York through 17 high-voltage transmission lines. The newly built facility will take over that task, probably next spring.
National Grid launched the upgrade just over a year ago, with O'Connell Electric as the prime contractor. The work has stayed on schedule despite a wet spring, said John Burke, National Grid's operations director.
"I've been at National Grid for 30 years, and this is the biggest project I've seen," Burke said. Materials for the facility came from a variety of sources, including steel from Nebraska and locally supplied stone and concrete.
The new complex includes about 45 circuit breakers, activating in an eye-blink in the event of a problem somewhere in the system, like a fallen power wire. "What they do is exactly what they do in your basement," Burke said. "They're just bigger."
As this project has moved along, top National Grid officials have checked on its progress. Kenneth Daly, National Grid's New York state president, was there last month. John Pettigrew, National Grid's London-based CEO, visited in August.
The new 115,000-volt complex also needs to be just as sturdy and steady as its predecessor, Kujawa said.
"We're a capital-intensive business. So when we put our assets in the ground or up in the air, they're designed to last for decades. Our facilities are subject to Mother Nature and weather conditions 24/7/365, we have to be able to withstand that."
And if the new 115,000-volt facility performs like its predecessor, it should operate steadily for decades.