Electrical substation

An electrical substation is a subsidiary station of an electricity generation, transmission and distribution system where voltage is transformed from high to low or the reverse using transformers. Electric power may flow through several substations between generating plant and consumer, and may be changed in voltage in several steps.

A substation that has a step-up transformer increases the voltage while decreasing the current, while a step-down transformer decreases the voltage while increasing the current for domestic and commercial distribution. The word substation comes from the days before the distribution system became a grid. The first substations were connected to only one power station where the generator was housed, and were subsidiaries of that power station.

Elements of a substation

Substations generally contain one or more transformers, and have switching, protection and control equipment. In a large substation, circuit breakers are used to interrupt any short-circuits or overload currents that may occur on the network. Smaller distribution stations may use recloser circuit breakers or fuses for protection of branch circuits. Substations do not (usually) have generators, although a power plant may have a substation nearby. A typical substation will contain line termination structures, high-voltage switchgear, one or more power transformers, low voltage switchgear, surge protection, controls, grounding (earthing) system, and metering. Other devices such as power factor correction capacitors and voltage regulators may also be located at a substation.

Substations may be on the surface in fenced enclosures, underground, or located in special-purpose buildings. High-rise buildings may have indoor substations. Indoor substations are usually found in urban areas to reduce the noise from the transformers, for reasons of appearance, or to protect switchgear from extreme climate or pollution conditions.

Where a substation has a metallic fence, it must be properly grounded (UK: earthed) to protect people from high voltages that may occur during a fault in the transmission system. Earth faults at a substation can cause ground potential rise at the fault location. Currents flowing in the earth's surface during a fault can cause metal objects to have a significantly different voltage than the ground under a person's feet; this touch potential presents a hazard of electrocution.

Transmission substation

A transmission substation connects two or more transmission lines. The simplest case is where all transmission lines have the same voltage. In such cases, the substation contains high-voltage switches that allow lines to be connected or isolated for maintenance. A transmission station may have transformers to convert between two transmission voltages, or equipment such as phase angle regulators to control power flow between two adjacent power systems.

Transmission substations can range from simple to complex. A small "switching station" may be little more than a bus plus some circuit breakers. The largest transmission substations can cover a large area (several acres/hectares) with multiple voltage levels, and a large amount of protection and control equipment (capacitors, relays, switches, breakers, voltage and current transformers).

Distribution substation

A distribution substation transfers power from the transmission system to the distribution system of an area. It is uneconomical to directly connect electricity consumers to the high-voltage main transmission network, unless they use large amounts of energy; so the distribution station reduces voltage to a value suitable for local distribution.

The input for a distribution substation is typically at least two transmission or subtransmission lines. Input voltage may be, for example, 115 kV, or whatever is common in the area. The output is a number of feeders. Distribution voltages are typically medium voltage, between 2.4 and 33 kV depending on the size of the area served and the practices of the local utility.

The feeders will then run overhead, along streets (or under streets, in a city) and eventually power the distribution transformers at or near the customer premises.

Besides changing the voltage, the job of the distribution substation is to isolate faults in either the transmission or distribution systems. Distribution substations may also be the points of voltage regulation, although on long distribution circuits (several km/miles), voltage regulation equipment may also be installed along the line.

Complicated distribution substations can be found in the downtown areas of large cities, with high-voltage switching, and switching and backup systems on the low-voltage side. More typical distribution substations have a switch, one transformer, and minimal facilities on the low-voltage side.

Collector substation

In distributed generation projects such as a wind farm, a collector substation may be required. It somewhat resembles a distribution substation although power flow is in the opposite direction, from many wind turbines up into the transmission grid. Usually for economy of construction the collector system operates around 35 kV, and the collector substation steps up voltage to a transmission voltage for the grid. The collector substation also provides power factor correction, metering and control of the wind farm.


The main issues facing a power engineer are reliability and cost. A good design attempts to strike a balance between these two, to achieve sufficient reliability without excessive cost. The design should also allow easy expansion of the station, if required.

Selection of the location of a substation must consider many factors. Sufficient land area is required for installation of equipment with necessary clearances for electrical safety, and for access to maintain large apparatus such as transformers. Where land is costly, such as in urban areas, gas insulated switchgear may save money overall. The site must have room for expansion due to load growth or planned transmission additions. Environmental effects of the substation must be considered, such as drainage, noise and road traffic effects. Grounding (earthing) and ground potential rise must be calculated to protect passers-by during a short-circuit in the transmission system. And of course, the substation site must be reasonably central to the distribution area to be served.


Tottenham Substation, set in wild parkland in North London

The first step in planning a substation layout is the preparation of a one-line diagram which shows in simplified form the switching and protection arrangement required, as well as the incoming supply lines and outgoing feeders or transmission lines. It is a usual practice by many electrical utilities to prepare single-line diagrams with principal elements (lines, switches, circuit breakers, transformers) arranged on the page similarly to the way the apparatus would be laid out in the actual station.

Incoming lines will almost always have a disconnect switch and a circuit breaker. In some cases, the lines will not have both; with either a switch or a circuit breaker being all that is considered necessary. A disconnect switch is used to provide isolation, since it cannot interrupt load current. A circuit breaker is used as a protection device to interrupt fault currents automatically, and may be used to switch loads on and off. Where a large fault current flows through the circuit breaker this may be detected through the use of current transformers. The magnitude of the current transformer outputs may be used to 'trip' the circuit breaker resulting in a disconnection of the load supplied by the circuit break from the feeding point. This seeks to isolate the fault point from the rest of the system, and allow the rest of the system to continue operating with minimal impact. Both switches and circuit breakers may be operated locally (within the substation) or remotely from a supervisory control center.

Once past the switching components, the lines of a given voltage connect to one or more buses. These are sets of bus bars, usually in multiples of three, since three-phase electrical power distribution is largely universal around the world.

The arrangement of switches, circuit breakers and buses used affects the cost and reliability of the substation. For important substations a ring bus, double bus or so-called "breaker and a half" setup can be used, so that the failure of any one circuit breaker does not interrupt power to branch circuits for more than a brief time, and so that parts of the substation may be de-energized for maintenance and repairs. Substations feeding only a single industrial load may have minimal switching provisions, especially for small installations.

Once having established buses for the various voltage levels, transformers may be connected between the voltage levels. These will again have a circuit breaker, much like transmission lines, in case a transformer has a fault (commonly called a 'short circuit').

Along with this, a substation always has control circuitry needed to command the various breakers to open in case of the failure of some component.

Switching function

An important function performed by a substation is switching, which is the connecting and disconnecting of transmission lines or other components to and from the system. Switching events may be "planned" or "unplanned".

A transmission line or other component may need to be deenergized for maintenance or for new construction; for example, adding or removing a transmission line or a transformer.

To maintain reliability of supply, no company ever brings down its whole system for maintenance. All work to be performed, from routine testing to adding entirely new substations, must be done while keeping the whole system running.

Perhaps more importantly, a fault may develop in a transmission line or any other component. Some examples of this: a line is hit by lightning and develops an arc, or a tower is blown down by a high wind. The function of the substation is to isolate the faulted portion of the system in the shortest possible time.

There are two main reasons: a fault tends to cause equipment damage; and it tends to destabilize the whole system. For example, a transmission line left in a faulted condition will eventually burn down, and similarly, a transformer left in a faulted condition will eventually blow up. While these are happening, the power drain makes the system more unstable. Disconnecting the faulted component, quickly, tends to minimize both of these problems.


Electrified railways also use substations which may also include rectifier equipment to change alternating current from the utility power distribution network to direct current for use by traction motors.