Historic precedent

Electric utility Emera Maine announced last week that they are considering expanding and upgrading an existing substation on Edgewood Street in lieu of building a new facility on Woodbury Road.

At either location, the concerns of neighbors about noise and safety need to be addressed. An added wrinkle of developing the Edgewood Street site is that the large brick structure there is designated locally as a historic building. It is not listed on any state or federal list of significant structures.

It once contained the generators for the town’s first electric company, the Bar Harbor Electric Light Company. In recent years, that site has housed some electrical switching equipment. It also has been used for general storage.

All too frequently, folks refer to something as “historic” based merely on its age. As the debate on where to locate a badly needed upgrade to the town’s electrical infrastructure continues, the appropriate designation of that structure on Edgewood Street will have to be made. Even with the current historic designation, it can be demolished only after a permit is requested, and local approval granted.

Considering that the Edgewood Street building has attracted no interest from a cultural or historic standpoint in more than 50 years, it may be difficult to convince regulators that it is an irreplaceable icon of the town’s past. However, replacing it with a giant fenced-in field of transformers or a large steel shed would do little to preserve or enhance the community’s character.

Advances in gas-insulated power switching equipment, compared to conventional air-insulated gear, mean modern substations can be substantially smaller than needed in the past. The gas is inert, nonflammable and non-explosive.

The technology was developed in Japan, and widely embraced in urban European areas. Industry sources suggest that gas-insulated switching equipment is more reliable, and easier to maintain.

If the use of such equipment proves economical, it may be possible to contain the vast majority of the required substation equipment in the existing structure, thus preserving the building, lessening the impact on the neighbors while avoiding utility sprawl.

As highway design engineers and utility companies have come to realize over the years, Bar Harbor seldom accepts a cookie-cutter approach to infrastructure improvements. Residents have definite opinions on how things should be done. Time and money will be saved if the public’s input is sought from the start.

If the substation project results in the Edgewood Street building being reused and preserved, instead of torn down and discarded, Emera could set a historic precedent of its own.

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