Commanding the power grid
ATC works to anticipate problems before they happen

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

Sept. 16, 2015

 The American Transmission Company operations center at the ATC headquarters in the City of Pewaukee. The transmission company controls its power transmission system covering the entire state from the room.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

CITY OF PEWAUKEE - Three American Transmission Company employees sit behind large desks with multiple computer monitors, troubleshooting phoned-in problems to the company’s operations center as well as keeping their eyes on an expansive grid map showing what generators are working, where there are problems and the amount of power being used.

ATC CEO and President Mike Rowe said the operations center is staffed 24/7 to resolve any problem that should arise, although the company in recent years has increased the reliability and stability of its power transmission lines throughout Wisconsin and into Michigan and Illinois.

 Mike Londo explains the American Transmission Company operations center during a tour of the facility on Tuesday.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

American Transmission Company President and CEO Mike Rowe talks during a tour of the facility in the City of Pewaukee on Tuesday.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

When the company was formed in 2001, Rowe said the reliability of the transmission lines in Wisconsin and upper Michigan wasn’t very good, but the company has continued to invest in upgrades and new lines.

“We were not a top player in the country and that’s being kind to ourselves,” Rowe said.

ATC was also the first transmission-only, multistate utility in the country. To create benchmarks for its success, Rowe said ATC looks to its neighboring states and others that have similar weather.

From the operations center in the City of Pewaukee, ATC operators can work with fellow ATC staff in all five major company locations, including the second operations center in Cottage Grove.

Since forming, ATC has built 48 new transmission lines and 60-plus projects have been permitted by the state for urban and rural areas and across state lines, Rowe said.

The general idea, Rowe said, is that transmission costs should comprise less than 10 percent of a person’s utility bill, so if a resident receives a $100 bill, only $10 of that should be for transporting power. For every $12 that is invested in a multivalue project, Rowe said, ATC is able to return $33 to the end user’s pocketbook.

“We look at the future as a variety of futures,” Rowe said, explaining there are many variables that could combine to form different scenarios, such as if more coal is used or less nuclear power is utilized.

 Video boards show weather and other system status items at the American Transmission Company operations center on Tuesday. The chart at lower right shows day-over-day energy usage, with Tuesday's usage higher than the cooler Monday usage.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

A challenge remains anticipating changes in how utilities generate power. Rowe said ATC is generally notified with as much advance notice needed to address the change with an ample amount of time, but the utilities are fairly quiet on the pending change until they receive governmental approval. Many of the changes are centered around the reduction in carbon output. Rowe said he doesn’t anticipate the changes in Wisconsin being too dramatic due to the nature of the coal used in the state.

 A display shows the amount of generated power, usage, power from wind generation, power frequency and surplus or deficit of power. The display numbers do not all appear because of the type of lights used in the display. The actual generation number was 9654 Mw.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

He said ATC is in a good place right now and it has predicted needs well, resulting in a stable environment. If a transmission line should have an issue, ATC has created 2,000 contingencies that the computer operator will run through in seconds. The human worker then reviews the contingencies to make sure the correct one is selected, said Mike Londo, transmission reliability administrator for ATC.

“We’re thinking ahead of that next thing to go wrong so we’re ahead of it,” Londo said.

ATC workers have also come to predict when the power usage will increase and decrease. Londo said around 10:15 p.m. after the weather is broadcast on TV, the usage goes down. It decreases again at 10:45 p.m. after the opening monologues on the evening entertainment shows. During halftime of a Packers game, usage will spike about 30 to 40 megawatts because people get up to make snacks and use the bathroom. During a Super Bowl halftime, the increase is closer to 100 megawatts, he said.