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Capitol Hill’s power grid ready to meet surprisingly low demands of development boom

There are at least 25 new buildings on Capitol Hill waiting for a Seattle City Light hookups and new requests are coming in about once a month.

Despite all that development in a relatively small area, City Light officials tell CHS the biggest challenge isn’t actually meeting the demand for power, which the neighborhood grid is well equipped to handle. Instead, the biggest challenge is the complicated scheduling and manpower required to move electrical poles and lines to make way for new construction and provide hook-ups when construction crews need it.

John Nierenberg, City Light’s senior manager of distbution engineering, told CHS that since many of Capitol Hill’s new developments are replacing older and less efficient buildings, power demands have not increased substantially even though density continues to rise.

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City Light’s docket of 25 new development connections (Image: Seattle City Light)

“Across the city we haven’t seen that much load growth even though there’s been a ton of urban renewal,” he said, adding that the 23rd and E Pine substation that services most of Capitol Hill is well-equppied to deal with the slight increases.

Capitol Hill’s mixed-use developments are also keeping down capacity increases, as the building have smoother usage levels throughout the day.

In recent years, some on Capitol Hill have questioned whether abundant construction or increasing density may be causing electrical blackouts. Nierenberg said blackouts could become more frequent on Capitol Hill — but only because more people in an area means an increased likelihood that a driver rams an electrical pole.

Unlike Capitol Hill, areas like South Lake Union saw massive load growth in recent years as unused warehouses were replaced with power-guzzling computer servers and office spaces, Nierenberg said.

In addition to efficient mixed-use buildings, Capitol Hill’s electrical infrastructure has benefitted from its proximity to major institutional and transportation projects in the area, most notably the University Link light rail, the light rail station, and the First Hill Streetcar. And since those projects have been in the pipeline for years, City Light finished much of the accommodating grid work back in 2010.

In 2013, City Light finished replacing an overhead mainline near Capitol Hill in order to serve the hospitals and Seattle University. “It will provide the capacity for years and years,” Nierenberg said.

Overall, the electrical system serving Capitol Hill will need scheduled upgrades, including pole replacement and converting old 4Kv components to higher capacity 26Kv components. Underground wire replacements will also continue in block chunks, like the recently completed E Boston Terrace project. Nierenberg said the development boom on Capitol Hill could actually speed up the process as crews can take advantage of disconnecting components for new construction.

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7 years ago

As a person with little to no understanding of electrical grids—I wonder how much work it would be to bury a significant portion of our electric lines, instead of having them dangle from poles, exposed to outdoor elements? Didn’t they do something similar in front of the Capitol Hill branch of the public library?

But of course that’s a pipe dream. I’m still wishing for sidewalks in our neighborhood that aren’t as cracked and uneven as the ones I had to walk on in Santiago, Chile.


[…] Square project makes the case for their preferred alternative (Design Review available online). Capitol Hill has plenty of utility capacity for development. Sightline Daily argues that speculation could be nipped in the bud while […]

Retired PSE
Retired PSE
7 years ago

Alex, you’ll notice that on the map that accompanies the article, everything within the red lines is an “underground ordinance”. That means that everything new or upgraded in that area has to put their utilities underground. Eventually, it will lead to the distribution wires being put underground.

The trouble with converting utilities in existing areas is that all of the property owners have to convert their electrical services at their own expense, and that is pricey. Doing it gradually like City Light is doing is about the only way to accomplish it.

7 years ago

Do you have a link to where you got that image of planned Capitol Hill projects? Maybe there’s a report there that includes other parts of the city (e.g., near Volunteer Park/Boren).