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Eversource hears from neighbors on future of electrical infrastructure within a changing urban landscape

(Somerville Wire) – With its dazzling array of commercial and residential buildings currently under construction or in the pipeline, and its cutting-edge plans to rapidly decarbonize to address climate change, Somerville is going to need a lot more electricity.

Eversource is proposing to add a third transformer to its substation on Prospect Street, which is located directly across from the new Green Line station in Union Square.

The company hosted a virtual public meeting—inconspicuously named “Neighborhood Meeting #2”—on Monday, Dec. 12. The utility presented its initial plans at an online meeting last February. In response to criticism at that meeting, the company spent the past 10 months working on a revised proposal.

This week’s meeting was facilitated by Ward 3 City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen. The substation is located in Ward 2, but Ward 2 Councilor J.T. Scott has been recused from official deliberations on this issue. Scott owns the property next door at 35 Prospect St., the site of his CrossFit Somerville gym.

In his introduction, Ewen-Campen explained that Eversource will need approval from the Somerville Planning Board before it can start construction, “and I’m sure that they would love for there to not be a crowd of neighbors [at a future Planning Board meeting] saying that they do not support this. So the point of these meetings is to have those conversations before we actually get to the Planning Board.”

Eversource brought 12 of its staff members to the virtual meeting, including project managers, engineers, and communications specialists. Their presentation was led by Outreach Manager Meredith Boericke, who explained that since the last meeting, her company had been “working hard with substation engineers, architects, and the Somerville City staff to find a consensus so that both the City’s and Eversource’s goals can be met.”

For Eversource, the main goal is “upgrading the grid to improve system reliability and resilience to ensure we are delivering on our obligation to provide safe, reliable energy all day, every day. And with the city, we’ve been discussing its ambitious decarbonization and economic redevelopment goals. And upgrading the Prospect Street substation helps accomplish these goals as well,” Boericke said.

In its revised proposal, the company focused on aesthetics, substantially redesigning the substation enclosure “to better fit with the look and feel of this evolving neighborhood,” she said.

“We heard you,” she assured attendees. “We heard this station is ugly, unattractive, neglected.”

Before presenting the new design proposals, Boericke addressed a question asked by some attendees at the February meeting. “With the city changing around it, you asked us why the substation could not be moved underground or elsewhere in the city,” she related.

“I think it will come as no surprise that Somerville is a leader in decarbonization and clean energy adoption. And it’s up to Eversource to help enable this transformation by leveraging the electric infrastructure we currently have and developing future partnerships to improve the siting of infrastructure we know will be needed to meet the demands of decarbonization,” she said.

The existing transformers in Somerville are critical to the transmission grid, she explained. “So moving the substation underground or elsewhere in the city presents us with a conundrum. First, Eversource cannot just turn the lights off. Maintaining a continuous adequate electric supply to Somerville is a regulatory obligation.”

If Eversource was forced to move the substation, it would have to build a new substation before the current one could go out of service, “a process which takes a decade or more,” she said. “Meanwhile, in that time, the need for increased electrical capacity will become more urgent as we move towards greater electrification, and the proposed third transformer at this site will still be necessary.”

Moving the substation would also require “miles of additional in-street construction to move the required transmission and distribution lines that deliver the energy from the substation to homes and businesses— unnecessarily adding to construction fatigue,” she concluded.

Turning to the design, Boericke said, “First and foremost, we heard you want this to look more like a building, and one of the reasons it took so long to come back to you with this proposal is the number of complexities and constraints involved in putting up walls. There are so many factors we need to consider, including how new foundations will impact existing underground infrastructure. We need to meet all of the regulatory, safety, and security standards for substations, and we needed to account for easements and property lines, to name just a few [of the complexities].”

The new proposal is not a building, but surrounding walls on two sides of the site, which is roughly triangular. The walls would have multiple spaces for public art, which she called “a canvas for the neighborhood.” The design would allow for “a vast array of choices for the look of the facade itself,” to be decided through a community-centered process and in consultation with the Somerville Arts Council.

The highest of the walls would be along Prospect Street. “Feedback we heard from you was that it was important to have a welcoming view for people coming off the Green Line Extension elevator,” she said.

On the Newton Street side of the parcel, which is residential, the wall “not only provides a canvas for artwork, but also will reduce any ambient noise for the neighbors, addressing another concern we heard at the first neighborhood meeting,” she said.

The Webster Avenue side of the station is the only side without a wall. Some residents had previously voiced concerns that a wall might get in the way of a proposed extension of the Green Line from Union to Porter Square. “We heard your concerns about the potential for a future expansion of the MBTA rail line, and while we received assurance from the MBTA that this project will not impede any potential future work, we too wanted no hint of a hindrance for the MBTA. Additionally, the property line, a grade change, and existing underground utilities make wall foundations impractical along this edge of the property,” Boericke said.

Finally, she explained that Eversource has a short-, medium-, and long-term plan for Somerville: “In the near term, upgrades at the Prospect Street substation will ensure continued reliability and improve resiliency. In the mid-term, the Greater Cambridge Energy Project will strengthen the Somerville-Cambridge region’s grid. And an upcoming transmission line maintenance project will improve reliability and increase electrical capacity. And in the long term, we are committed to working with Somerville on any future electrical equipment that will be needed to keep pace with the city’s growth and decarbonization efforts.”

The Greater Cambridge Energy Project includes construction of a new underground substation in Kendall Square, along with underground transmission lines interconnecting to existing substations in the surrounding area, including Union Square.

During the Q&A after the presentation, Somerville resident Jennifer Hilario asked, “I’m concerned Cambridge will successfully protest the new substation [being planned for Kendall Square], and Somerville will get stuck with the additional transformer. Why can’t you build Cambridge first and then come back to Somerville?”

Maija Benjamins, Director of Strategic Project Development for Eversource, explained that the new substation requires approval through the state Energy Facility Siting Board, which takes significantly longer than adding a transformer to an existing substation.

“The transformer [in Union Square] is needed for Somerville and the future growth, so I wouldn’t look at it as something that’s only temporarily needed. As all the different development comes forward in Somerville, we need that to maintain reliable service as well as address all of the electrification goals of the city. Those policies are coming fast and furious, and we’re working to meet the community’s needs for that,” Benjamins said.

Hilario also asked whether the new transformer would increase noise coming from the site. John Zicko, Director of Capital Projects Engineering, replied that an acoustical consultant has already done several studies of the substation, and sound levels are within allowable levels. Transformer technology has changed over the years, and it’s now “very, very quiet,” he said. “They have come a long way in a short time as to how they can acoustically treat the transformers.”

Another resident asked whether Eversource might come back and ask to add a fourth transformer in the future. Zicko replied, “I don’t see how we could possibly fit a fourth transformer in there.”

Some residents continued to question why the substation could not be moved.

“We are pretty constrained with the site that we’re working with,” Benjamins explained. “There’s a couple issues that we face. Number 1, substations need to be where the load is, and this station is located right where we are serving a lot of the load that is coming online right now. So this station is serving the Green Line Extension across the street, it’s serving the [Union Square] development, and it’s serving the additional development south of the Green Line, as well as many other components in the area. So when you look at the development in the area, it doesn’t leave much room for relocation. In addition, one of Eversource’s most important goals at this point is to work with the communities and make sure that all of these clean energy initiatives are brought forward, which means a tremendous amount of electrification.”

Benjamins also raised the question of where to site new infrastructure. “As you know, real estate is at a premium. So our first task is to reinforce our existing facilities, while we’re also looking at finding new facilities. We do know that we will need additional infrastructure to offset the growth of Somerville and make sure that we can provide reliable service, and working closely with the City of Somerville so that’s located in a place that is more acceptable to the community.”

“This substation has been here for a very long time,” she concluded. “And the expense and time that it takes to relocate those stations is a lot to put on the shoulders of ratepayers.”

Union Square resident Tori Antonino said focusing on short-term fixes will only continue the “environmental injustices” that have been imposed on Somerville in the past.

“I don’t want this to be approached as ‘let’s fix the facade,’ because I don’t think fixing facades is getting to the heart of the problem, which is where are we going to find a concrete place for this to be, that is going to serve us in not just the next 10 years, but finding a plan that can be like a 50-year plan,” she said.

“That means if we’re going to say yes to this, we are going to start an immediate process now to figure out how this gets moved,” Antonino said. “If we’re talking about needing another substation … where is it going to go, and how do we start the community process now for finding a permanent location that ultimately does remove the substation from this area, and create something that hopefully would be something as for humans, or for something more passive.”

Several residents said having a substation at that site would unfairly affect the people who will move into new residential buildings on the opposite side of Webster Street. For many years, a used car dealership and an auto repair shop have been situated across Webster Street from the electrical station. Union Square Associates (US2), the master developer currently overseeing 2.7 million square feet of transit-oriented development in the square, has said it is planning to replace those single-story businesses with a residential development. Their initial design ideas have not yet been publicly announced but will have to include some affordable housing.

Boericke said Eversource recently found out about the new residences being planned on Webster Avenue.

“We certainly don’t want to disproportionately impact any new developments, especially affordable housing,” she said. “We’re looking forward to hearing from you and others and working with Mass DOT to hopefully find something that will provide a better line of sight for the Webster Ave. side of the station.”

One of the final residents to speak was Ward 2 Councilor J.T. Scott.

“You know, I’m just here as an abutter, who loves my neighbors, and I really appreciate all the really thoughtful questions and comments,” he said.

“Eversource has decided the most expedient, cost-efficient method is to add a transformer on this site. But to me … this is a matter of where are we going to be in 10 years. And if we don’t begin moving there now, we’ll be exactly nowhere. We’ll be exactly in the same situation we’re at, only with even more lab buildings having come online,” Scott said.

Like some of the other residents who spoke, Scott objected to the lack of a wall on Webster Street.

“It just seems odd—and I will say, frankly, unfair that so much effort and design time has been put into a very shiny entrance for people who are coming off our new T stop. And for the people that already exist in the area, not so much. And that doesn’t feel great.”

Boericke replied, “One of the takeaways that we left the February meeting with was the importance of making sure that as residents, visitors, students, everybody coming into Union Square off the brand-new T station elevator, that there was a welcoming and inviting view.”  

She added, “We don’t purport to come in and say this is what Eversource wants, you know. That’s why these focus groups take probably another year. Because we iterate, we come back and forth, we hear from members of the community who live and work and are invested in this neighborhood. So you know it’s not meant to be our stamp, it’s meant to be your stamp, and we see ourselves as providing the canvas to do that.”

Resident Meredith Porter asked about the status of the project and what kind of approvals would be needed. In response, Andrew Graminski, a member of the Somerville Planning Department staff, explained the permitting process.

“At the moment, this project needs two special permits to move through the local permitting process, and those are for a minor utility facility use and then the expansion of an existing nonconforming use,” Graminski said. “Regarding the potential for site plan approval, that hasn’t been ruled out yet. However, that’s something that the Inspectional Services Department is gonna need to confirm as they interpret what sort of approvals are needed. And as this is a facade around the site, I don’t know if it would constitute a building.”

If ISD determines that site plan approval is needed, that would require more community meetings, as well as a review by the Urban Design Commission, he added.

“This meeting is basically a voluntary meeting held by the applicant, it’s not required for the permitting process. They already had their required neighborhood meeting back in February. This is something that the team wanted to do just to provide updates to the project and the new facades that have been developed,” Graminski said.

At the end of the meeting, Ewen-Campen summarized his thinking. “I came out of the meeting in February very much hoping that it would be possible to use this opportunity to start the ‘moving this location’ process.” But now he understands that the city cannot force Eversource to move the site altogether. “We have to make commensurate conditions. That might not be to my liking, but I kind of tolerate that fact,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of really technical explanations for why this can’t be an actual building that goes around. I get that. I think that you’re all professional and certainly understand the details better than I do. But my profession is representing this neighborhood. And, you know, there’s just no world in which I could support what’s being shown tonight, where it looks like a concrete wall from the Webster Ave. side,” Ewen-Campen said.

“I could certainly imagine this being a relatively attractive building in the end—bricks, windows, art—you know, those things sound great. But this just being a single wall around one side is, I’m sorry to say, for me it’s just a total nonstarter in terms of my support. So it sounds like there is still hope that you all can come back to us with changes in plans, and you sound committed to working with the neighborhood. I’m really appreciative of that.”

Photo credit: Eversource Union Square substation. Photo by Russell Adams. Copyright 2022 Russell Adams. Used with permission.

Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

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