Electricity not as simple as throwing a switch

The Herald Independent, By Kevin Passon Managing Editor and Nicole Poley Reporter, October 1, 2015

Flip the switch and everyone expects the lights to turn on and the computer to boot up.

Few people probably ever consider how that electricity gets to their home or business. Even fewer know one of two operation centers for American Transmission Company – which is responsible for bringing that electricity to homes and businesses – is a few miles south of Cottage Grove.

“It’s a pretty sophisticated operation, and it’s probably something that most people never think about when they flip the switch,” said Anne Spaltholz, corporate communications manager at American Transmission Company.

ATC is the link between the generators of the electricity and the distributors of the electricity.

Formed in 2001, ATC is the first transmission-only utility to operate in multiple states – Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota. It has more than 650 employees who operate and monitor more than 9,500 miles of transmission lines. It also contracts out all of its construction work, which involves several hundred more people.

“Our thing is about keeping the lights on and providing access to everybody who wants to use the transmission system,” said Mike Rowe, who was named ATC president and CEO as of May 1. “So, reliability is number one.”

Rowe has been with ATC for 10 years and has more than 30 years of experience in the utility business.

Among the biggest challenges is to offer that reliability but in the most cost-effective manner possible. All utilities struggle with this balancing act, but ATC has seen significant improvements in its operations.

Reliability has been improved through the upgrading of 1,800 miles of transmission lines, improvements to 165 electric substations and the construction of 48 new transmission lines.

At its start, the transmission company was focused on Wisconsin itself and not performing up to its potential.

“The first part of our history we focused on really addressing those reliability issues,” Rowe said. “And now we’ve grown and developed to the point where we don’t really operate in crisis mode unless something like a tornado comes through. Now we look at the system, rather than on a line-by-line basis, or just this part of the system, now we look at it as a player in the whole Midwest, so it’s really a regional look.”

Rowe said ATC is a Midwest success story, going from worst to first in 15 years.

“When we look at reliability now, we are almost always in the top 10 percent in the country in terms of our transmission system performance, and in some cases, in some years, it varies, we are best in class at some voltages,” he said.

Mirror operation

The operations center south of Cottage Grove is a duplicate of ATC’s other operations center in Pewaukee in Waukesha County. If one center goes down, ATC can continue to be operated by the other center until both are back online.

Eric Dietzman is the manager of the operations center, and Bill Hoesly is the transmission reliability administrator. The two, along with Rowe, last week provided a unique behind-the-scenes tour of the local operations center, with the property as well as certain rooms in the building all under tight security measures.

The operations center is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system operators work 12-hour shifts, rotating regularly between day and night shifts.

“We bring in about 50,000 data points from substations … all over the state and into Michigan, and a little bit of Minnesota and Illinois,” Hoesly said.

A North American Electric Reliability Corporation certification is required to be a system operator. Employees must first pass a test and then undergo 200 hours of continuing education every three years to maintain the certification.

Also, there is a two-year program to learn the ATC system.

There are 14 system operators in Cottage Grove and 18 in Pewaukee, as well as some in training.

“We actually run the operators through drills of a variety of scenarios, all the way to a complete blackout of the system,” Hoesly said.

ATC is also part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc. (MISO), a regional transmission organization that serves as a link in the delivery of electric power across all or parts of 15 states and the Canadian province of Manitoba.

All of MISO undergoes two drills every October as a means of training for all members.

“I think last June when the tornados were rolling through the Platteville area, a lot of the system got knocked down back then. That was pretty intense,” Hoesly said. “The storms kept coming through here, and we actually had our facility (go) on our backup generator, which is very unusual.”

The electric grid is monitored constantly with information flowing into the system every few seconds. Two operators monitor the numerous screens of information throughout the day and night.

“We have about 50,000 points that come in that give us a picture of the network, and then we run that through the Energy Management System, and that gives us a contingency analysis,” Hoesly said. “So it takes that snapshot and it simulates opening every element in the system, and then runs through and finds, if that happens, what’s the violation. So that’s what these guys do, is make sure that we stay inbounds so that we can withstand the next worst contingency.”

Moving forward

While American Transmission has made great strides in its reliability and overall operations, Rowe said the company cannot rest on its laurels.

In planning for the future, he said officials used to project one scenario and then build to it. Now, they must look at multiple scenarios and devise different plans to accommodate all possibilities.

A large project will take at least six years to accomplish, and some may take as long as a decade, he said.

Rowe also noted that because of the Great Lakes, electricity flowing into ATC must come from the south or the west. Also, the cost of transmission on a typical electric bill is less than 10 percent of the total.

The industry is highly regulated by state and federal agencies, but Rowe noted that ATC works well with those agencies and has been issued permits for more than 60 projects. It has also earned certificates in every state in which it operates.

Some of the ATC projects are very local, while others are considered a multi-value project, with costs shared across the entire MISO footprint. The latter projects often address reliability, access to renewables and economics, and public policy issues.

For example the Badger Coulee project, from Madison northwest to La Crosse, will improve stability and aid in the importing of renewables from the west.

Rowe also recognized that the work done by ATC does have a short-term impact on the environment.

“Our goal is to leave every right of way better than when we went into that right of way,” he said.

American Transmission has earned Wisconsin Green Tier and Clean Corporate Citizen recognition.


Explaining the basics

Mike Rowe, president and CEO of American Transmission Company, discusses the company’s link between electricity generators and distributors. ATC has two operation centers, including one south of Cottage Grove.