Hip hues on the Rail Trail

Hip hues on the Rail Trail

​Art project casts Charlotte substation in a different light

Economic boosters at Charlotte Center City Partners faced a bit of a challenge when they decided to turn a 3.3-mile path connecting city neighborhoods into a trail to showcase public art.

They wanted to find a way to blend in – or downplay – the Duke Energy electrical substation located along the path near Bland Street.

Instead of ignoring the facility, a system of bulky high-voltage electrical equipment necessary for powering the region, trail organizers decided to embrace it. They partnered with Duke Energy’s retail programs team to use energy-efficient LED, or light-emitting diode, lighting to illuminate the structure, adding a pop of vibrant color and whimsy to one of the most unlikely places in the city.

"We wanted to do something that is not only attractive and interesting, but also demonstrates our commitment to energy efficiency,” said Michael Luhrs, vice president of the retail programs group.

Duke officials turned on the lights for the first time in January 2016.

Adding to neighborbhood quirkiness 

Few would consider the imposing substation – wedged between parking decks, residential units and office buildings in Charlotte’s eclectic and trendy South End area – appealing to the eye.

We wanted to do something that is not only attractive and interesting, but also demonstrates our commitment to energy efficiency.

Swathing the structure in color is “a perfect way to highlight something that could be obtrusive and dark,” said Erin Gillespie, a Center City Partners planning and development associate. “The changing lights will be exciting for kids and families, as well.”

“The juxtaposition of the hard, industrial electrical equipment and the soft lighting adds some visual interest,” added Shannon Lingo, an engineer who co-managed the project for Duke Energy. “It’s unexpected.”

This is not the first time outdoor lighting has been used to enhance a substation’s appearance. A utility in Huntsville, Ala., has done it before, and Duke Energy Progress has used decorative lighting at a substation in Raleigh.

Shining a light on Duke’s work

The Charlotte substation project, a shareholder-funded initiative, uses 10 color-changing LED lights specially designed to spotlight buildings, architecture and large displays. Engineers can program the lights to music and blend them to create custom colors, such as Carolina blue or Clemson orange. The plan is to illuminate the substation from dusk until around 10 p.m. each night and again from around 5 a.m. until dawn.

Duke worked to ensure ensure public safety and security around the substation, critical infrastructure for the company. 

More projects planned

The proposed public-art path, called the Rail Trail, is an existing path that winds through several Charlotte neighborhoods and runs along the city’s light-rail passenger-train route. Charlotte Center City Partners has been plotting how to use the path for years. The hope is to fill it with a network of gardens, public art, unique spaces and activities, and quirky places to sit and socialize.

“The trail is already built, and we’re just trying to reposition it as a linear park,” Gillespie said.

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