Travers will connect more than one million solar panels to the electrical grid, covering an area larger than 1,600 football fields. These panels will convert the sun’s energy in beautiful southern Alberta into 465 megawatts of electrical power. That’s enough to power more than 150,000 homes.

And none of it will go anywhere if the substation isn’t working.

“A substation basically converts voltage,” explains PCL’s John Lee. “For a consumer, it could pull power from the grid and convert to a lower voltage. But for Travers, it goes the other way—it converts the 35 kV power coming out of the solar array to the 240 kV that the grid uses.”

Building this critical piece of infrastructure required extensive teamwork and some creative thinking to overcome unexpected challenges.

Here’s how the PCL team did it.

Planning and design work on the Travers substation kicked off in the summer of 2020, just as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to disrupt global supply chains and depress commodity prices. By the time construction began the following summer, demand for many construction materials and components had surged.

“If you remember when the cost of a sheet of plywood doubled—that’s when we started to build this,” says Lee. “And this was an EPC project, which meant that everything except the transformers were supplied by PCL.”

Overcoming the global supply chain crisis and finding all the required parts on time was no small task. For example, the aluminum bus pipes had long lead times with strict quality requirements. Lee and the rest of the team were able to use their strong supplier relationships and careful planning to avoid delays for crucial components and meet the demands of the schedule.

The team also opted to build the substation’s e-house at PCL’s own fabrication shop in Nisku, Alberta, Canada, to counteract the increased uncertainties with commodity prices and schedule risks. 

An e-house is where power workers monitor and control all the electrical devices in a substation. It’s a bit like the substation’s brain. The Travers substation e-house is uncommonly compact and extraordinarily complex.

“There’s a piece of equipment in almost every square foot of the floor space,” says Chad Rezewski, superintendent with PCL Energy. “We had 4.5 kilometres of cable to install in a building that was 15 feet wide and 40 feet long.”

The team only had 12 weeks to build the entire e-house. Any problems or delays with the e-house would have major implications for the entire substation build.

To make sure this complicated and critical piece of the project was completed on time, PCL’s substation team decided to self-perform the e-house fabrication. Rezewski led the team that built the facility.

“I have some experience building these,” he says, “but more importantly I hired some individuals I worked with almost 10 years ago in PCL’s module yard. We had a lot of years together and a great trust factor. We drew on every team member’s experience to make this short timeline, complexly designed project a success.”

The supply chain challenges that complicated other parts of the substation also came to bear on the e-house fabrication.

“When we started construction, we didn’t have any permanent install equipment on-hand or delivered,” says Rezewski, “and usually we require these items at the front end of construction.”

To assemble as much of the building as possible without all the components on-hand, Rezewski’s team obtained detailed information on each piece of equipment from its vendor and then printed off “cut sheets” of each piece to use for reference during construction. Sketches of the equipment were then taped to the walls and the floors to simulate the layout and locations of what the finished product would look like, so work could continue.

“We had to break the standard sequence of construction and draw on our team’s experience to keep the project moving forward without jeopardizing the schedule,” says Rezewski. “Not one individual had a defined list of responsibilities when it came to this project. Everyone did whatever was needed to be successful.

That same spirit of teamwork, says Lee, permeated every aspect of the substation build.

“We were able to be successful here because of cooperation,” he says. “Collaboration between every PCLer that worked on this project brought us to where we are today.”