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Friday, August 3, 2012

Tom Still: Reliable power is part of Wisconsin's appeal to attracting, growing companies


By Tom Still
The lights went out last Tuesday in India. From its eastern border with Myanmar to its western frontier with Pakistan, the electrical system failure spread across 2,000 miles and left 670 million people -- nearly 10 percent of the world's population -- without power.

The outage was so extensive that trains sat motionless on tracks, miners were trapped underground, traffic slowed to a crawl and the nation's fragile power grid was once again exposed in ways that may even threaten India's coalition government.

Fortunately for Wisconsin, a miniature version of India's Black Tuesday is becoming less likely by the year. That's thanks to factors that are modernizing the state's electrical power grid -- and ensuring greater reliability for residential and business users.

Think back to the late 1990s, when Wisconsin's electric utilities asked customers to reduce their use of electrical power in order to prevent system failures in the summer. The prospect of brownouts or even blackouts was real because the power grid itself, a complicated infrastructure designed to move electrons safely and efficiently from point to point, was incapable of handling heavy loads.

The creakiness of the system not only threatened homeowners and key public facilities such as hospitals and schools, but businesses that were asked to use less power. Some installed costly backup generators rather than put their businesses at risk.

That began to change with 1999 when major utilities were ordered by federal regulators to form independent regional companies to control electric transmission lines. It was envisioned as a way to force economies of scale, including more efficient transmission of power across state and even national borders.

That order led to the birth of American Transmission Co., the nation's first for-profit, multi-state transmission utility. Owned by 29 investor-owned utilities, electric cooperatives, municipal utilities and local governments in four states, its holdings include 9,440 miles of lines, 519 substations and a number of projects in the works.

American Transmission Co. has invested $2.7 billion in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois since 2001 and plans to spend another $4 billion in the next decade, with the bulk of it related to upgrade existing lines, building new lines, improving substations and reducing energy losses associated with transmission.

Under construction is the 32-mile Rockdale-West Middleton line in Dane County. On the drawing boards are projects in western Wisconsin, eastern Wisconsin and the area straddling the Wisconsin-Michigan border. The company is also heavily involved in connecting wind energy generation sites in the Plains states to Wisconsin and beyond.

"The improvements ATC has made over the past 10 years were focused on keeping the lights on in Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan," said Anne Spaltholz, the company's communications manager. "There are some challenges that remain, but there are also some opportunities to improve connections to neighboring systems that will enable more economic movement of power during peak usage times, such as what we're experiencing this summer, and to enable local distribution companies to access high-quality renewable resources in other regions."

In short, Wisconsin's power grid has held up so far this summer – even with a spate of 100-degree days. With a more efficient transmission system, electrons can flow to where they're needed and the state can tap into energy from elsewhere. In a state that must import electrical power to meet all of its needs, that reduces long-term need for costly new plants at home.

Energy costs in Wisconsin have climbed, but so has reliability. There have been no reports of extended or widespread power outages in the state this year, nor does it appear that local utilities enacted emergency measures to curtail power use.

In a global economy with myriad competitive factors, energy reliability matters. If you're a business owner, especially one with technology systems that require constant "up" time, you need to know the power will stay on. That's not the case in some developing nations, as evidenced by India's mega-blackout, but it's a selling point for Wisconsin.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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