BGE puts new transformer on line to deal with growth

230-ton unit will supply electricity in an area from Owings Mills to Finksburg

April 22, 2002|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Ten years ago, the seers at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. forecast population explosion in the Owings Mills area that would spread its way northwest.

And as more people moved in, the utility company predicted, the demand for power would also grow.

They were correct on both counts.

Today, BGE is to power up a new 230-ton transformer that will feed electricity to 90,000 customers through 113 miles of utility lines stretching from Owings Mills to Finksburg -- the first phase of a three-year, $9 million upgrade at the Northwest Substation in Reisterstown.

Next year, BGE will finish the project by replacing a second transformer to serve as a backup system. BGE expects the region to grow by an additional 7,200 customers in the next several years.

"We knew that we'd need to prepare for a pretty massive project up there," said Dennis Medlin, BGE project manager at Northwest, one of the company's 10 largest bulk power stations. "We'd need almost a complete rebuild of the station, which is about 50 to 60 years old."

"Without this upgrade, it could mean a lot of trouble for the areas we're serving," Medlin said. "We were beginning to exceed the power capacity of the station."

Planning started in 1999 when BGE designed oil-burning transformers capable of sending about 500 megawatts of electricity into an area that has doubled in size the past decade. After an international bidding process, BGE selected an Austrian company to custom-build the electrical behemoths -- a process that took a year to complete.

Two weeks ago, after sailing down the Danube on a barge and crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the first of two colossal transformers slowly made its way to the substation, which is tucked behind a wooded area off Cockeys Mill Road. The transformer, loaded on an oversized trailer, inched its way from the Dundalk Marine Terminal during the early morning hours to avoid rush-hour traffic on the Beltway and Interstate 795.

After cranes lifted the transformer onto a pit of stones 4 feet deep -- protected with liner to prevent an oil spill from seeping into the ground -- BGE workers began assembling the pieces. They greased gaskets, secured turrets and connected 1,389- pound high voltage bushings and surge arrestors, which look like giant spark plugs and caterpillars, to the gray transformer box.

The high power current sent to the substation from power plants will be stepped down and sent out along lines to other stations until the electricity reaches the green boxes found on many home lawns. Those baby transformers decrease the voltage to a more suitable power level for use in its final destination, homes and businesses.

Next year, an identical transformer will travel the same path from Austria to complete the second phase of the project.

"There's nothing better than watching things put together," Medlin said as he looked at pieces of the transformer hovering above the ground from a crane. "There is so much steel work that has to be done and so many pieces that have to be put together. It's gratifying to go from the concept stage to this."

Once the transformer is up and running, the power at the substation will be tied to the power system run by the PJM Interconnection, a Pennsylvania-based group that oversees the region's power grid for 22 million customers. Electricity can be transferred back and forth, increasing reliability, said Donald Sanruck, BGE's director of project management and engineering.

"This was a very complex project," Sanruck said. "We used special construction techniques and coordinated with a lot of other projects on our BGE system to minimize the expense and outages it would have taken to complete the work. We also timed the work to happen when usage is low so that no one on our system would feel a thing."

The next upgrade on BGE's system is to begin next year on the High Ridge Substation in Howard County, which feeds power to the National Security Agency, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and W.R. Grace & Co.

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