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Renewing the Grid

July 27, 2015
ITC upgrades the transmission system to interconnect Michigan’s largest wind farm.

Never before has the demand for a secure grid, reliable power, competitive wholesale markets and cleaner electricity been so intense. These issues were top of mind in the spring of 2015 with the release of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Quadrennial Energy Review, in which the White House pledged to “take responsible steps to modernize our energy infrastructure,” increasing the national conversation around the need to address aged infrastructure, harden the system and address reliability requirements. Meanwhile, significant changes are expected as local generators and states begin to undertake the challenges set forth by renewable portfolio standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan and other environmentally focused policies.

While large capital projects attract the most attention, the day-to-day reliability of the nation’s power grid does not rest on these flagship assets alone. Smaller, but nonetheless complex, regional projects are just as important. Changes to the generation mix are putting immense pressure on all sections of the nation’s grid to keep the power flowing reliably. Transmission is a vital piece of the alternative generation puzzle, and it is critical for its importance not to be overlooked.

ITC is one such utility working to move the industry from a decades-old legacy of a transmission system serving a balkanized power sector and toward a 21st century model that better serves American consumers. The Gratiot County Wind Farm project serves as a perfect illustration of the power of a local line as it fits into the nation’s electric backbone.

The Regal substation in Gratiot County, Michigan, was one of two new substations constructed for the Gratiot County Wind Farm. The Regal and Redstone substations include storm-water retention ponds with appropriate stone rip-rap erosion controls installed at the inlet pipes to slow and lessen the effect of storm water coming off the station.

The Challenge Is Set

Elements of the transmission grid in the Gratiot County area of Michigan have been in place for many years and, in some cases, were at or near capacity. Connecting what would become Michigan’s largest-ever wind farm at 200 MW quickly became one the most complex and challenging interconnection projects in ITC’s history.

To begin, ITC planning engineers closely studied the impact such a large wind farm would have on the high-voltage grid in the Gratiot County area. The wind farm has 133 GE 1.6-MW turbines and covers approximately 30,000 acres (12,141 hectares) of private land near four small towns. On inspection, it quickly became apparent to ITC’s engineers injecting such a large amount of energy into the grid would require significant new facilities and upgrades.

Multiple paths would be required to move the wind farm’s energy onto the grid efficiently. In addition, building new facilities and upgrading existing assets would require close communication and cooperation with local communities so they could be informed about the benefits of the project and become engaged in its successful completion.

The four project elements — two new substations, a new line and a line rebuild — came together to balance business operations with a sense of community. Prior to laying the foundation for the project, ITC reached out to economic development officials at Greater Gratiot Development Inc. and community members to gain their input and begin providing an orderly flow of information so everyone was informed and comfortable with the plans. A more robust grid has positive and lasting effects on the nation as a whole, but, more specifically, benefits areas close to an updated system. The economic development group and community members quickly became engaged in the project’s successful completion.

ITC’s policy of continuous engagement with state and local officials, nongovernmental organizations, local business leaders, landowners, residents and local environmental organizations ensures these constituents have the opportunity to fully discuss projects, review proposed routes and ask questions.

Construction of the Regal substation for the Gratiot County Wind Farm included the installation of a new ring bus.

The Importance of Planning

ITC engineers developed a comprehensive two-step plan that included two new substations — Regal in Gratiot County and Redstone in Midland County — along with other system upgrades as the wind farm gradually ramped up its production. These improvements included reconstruction of approximately 10.7 miles (17.2 km) of the existing Tittabawassee–Begole 138-kV line between the Redstone and Regal substations to increase the line’s capacity, as well as construction of a new double-circuit 138-kV line approximately 2.4 miles (3.9 km) long, connecting the Regal substation with ITC’s Alma–Summerton 138-kV line.

The construction of this project came in two phases. Phase I involved building the new substation Redstone and cutting the Tittabawassee–Begole line into Redstone with an in-service date of October 2011. Phase II involved rebuilding the Tittabawassee–
Begole line, installing a new ring bus at Regal substation (formerly known as Begole) and performing associated relay work at the satellite ends (Alma and Summerton) with an in-service date of February 2012.

All construction efforts were coordinated between ITC, its contractors and Invenergy, the wind farm developer, to oversee the successful and timely completion of this project. As the project unfolded, ITC broadened its stakeholder outreach by working closely with the wind farm developer and with county and municipal officials to keep them apprised of the planning, design and construction work on the project. This helped to ensure communities were well informed and all requirements for permits were met. ITC also worked closely with the Gratiot County wind project and Invenergy to finish each phase of the interconnection process on schedule so the team could meet commitments to customers in a timely manner.

Construction of the 138-kV Redstone substation underway in Midland County.

Improvements and Growth

ITC executed this complex interconnection project on schedule and on budget, allowing Gratiot County Wind, LLC — jointly owned by Invenergy and DTE Energy — to ramp up production gradually as planned to meet its obligations to its customers. Communities remained well informed and supported the project, and the Gratiot County area now benefits from a more robust grid.

The president of Greater Gratiot Development, Donald Schurr, says the grid upgrades are having positive effects beyond just connecting the wind farm. The increases in capacity, reliability and power quality have become a key element in the organization’s efforts to attract more new businesses to Gratiot County, particularly those with large or exacting power quality standards. The improved power quality and capacity these transmission system upgrades have brought is also assisting efforts by Greater Gratiot Development to attract businesses such as large manufacturers and data centers that require large supplies of high-quality power to operate reliably and efficiently.

The Larger Story

One may wonder why this relatively small project in one county smack dab in the middle of Michigan is important. It is emblematic, actually: 70% of the country’s transmission lines are more than a quarter-century old. Aging lines, transformers and other components of the power grid cause blackouts and other power disturbances, which, in turn, cost the U.S. economy as much as US$180 billion each year, according to the DOE. The Gratiot County project is but one example of a modernized building block in an electrical grid that desperately needs modernization.

Regional planners need to move beyond short-term thinking and invest in a grid that works for not only today’s world but tomorrow’s, as well. If the system does not adapt, America will find itself falling further and further behind the rest of the world.

New policy-based factors — such as greater competition and increasing environmental, Federal Energy Regulation Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation regulations — continue to require evolution of the electric system. Eyes are on the transmission grid at this moment to continue delivering reliable power while dealing with the myriad pressures of the current and future energy needs of consumers across the country.

How the generation mix evolves will define the future of the utility industry. What is clear is renewable planning requires transmission. As the profile of renewable energy grows, the power transmission grid that supports its delivery to load centers — which can be hundreds of miles, or kilometers, away from the source — must be modernized. And, the intermittent nature of renewable resources, like wind and solar, necessitates a robust transmission grid that can better support these types of generation. Additional transmission infrastructure, including interconnections, substations, and new or upgraded lines, is required to support renewable energy development.

Monopole towers connecting the Gratiot County Wind Farm take up less land, are much easier to farm around and are self-supporting.

Now or Else

In 2012, the American Society of Civil Engineers predicted if the U.S. does not make a significant investment of $72 billion annually in its electrical system, the cost of service interruptions could rise to $197 billion by 2020. A senior executive with a Fortune 500 IT company recently said if the U.S. is at a point a few years from now where it has not invested in its infrastructure, it will lose credibility with other countries wanting to do business with it. It is critical the U.S. prioritizes solutions that will lead the way for innovative grid development.

Conversely, if the U.S. begins investing now, the country will see an energy future with less congestion even as the system continues to incorporate new sources of power generation, more reliability for customers and businesses, and economic benefits brought about by lower costs and job growth. Rather than continue to add layers on a parochial electrical system, the U.S. must start building a well-planned grid, deciding as best as possible what the future energy mix will look like. Transmission planners must face the fact the energy system is changing, and, to remain competitive, it is essential all stakeholders in the electricity system rethink the country’s infrastructure needs and act now.

Gary Manaise ([email protected]) has worked at ITC Holdings Corp. for 10 years and currently serves as a senior project manager and engineer. He supervises projects and ensures deadlines, standards and cost targets are met. Manaise earned a BS degree in computer and electrical engineering from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.

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