While major utilities often garner headlines as power generators and providers, electric transmission companies are often behind the scenes as the critical infrastructure that moves power to customers. This role is increasingly important as major shifts occur toward renewable energy and electric vehicles. Simon Whitelocke, president of Novi-based transmission provider ITC Michigan, spoke with MiBiz to discuss his company’s role in this shift as well as the power grid support that will be needed to attract large-scale economic development projects.
What are ITC Michigan’s priorities heading into 2022?
We have several, but it’s still just the day to day of making sure we have the infrastructure to keep the lights on and maintain a great level of reliability. That means executing on capital and maintenance programs for the next year.
Beyond that … the legislation that’s going through around economic development — we are definitely focused on making sure we are supporting those efforts. As you can imagine, a lot of these large facilities use a lot of electricity, so we would be a part of connecting them to the grid. Here in Michigan, it seems like there’s a great opportunity with electric vehicles coming and the supporting suppliers and industries that are driving a lot of this new investment.
What role does a transmission company play in these discussions about luring major manufacturing projects?
When a facility is a large electric user, they more likely than not would be directly connected to our high-voltage lines. They’re still a customer of DTE or Consumers, but they’re being fed electricity at a much higher voltage than the average home or business. We’re very active in designing the facilities that are needed to interconnect them to the grid.
Nationally we’re seeing an ongoing discussion about the need to build more interstate transmission to move renewable energy from rural areas where it’s generated to population centers. How does Michigan, as a peninsula, fit into those discussions?
That’s another major priority of ours: Facilitating this transition from fossil generation to renewables. We’re seeing both DTE and Consumers have major plans to retire older plants and replace them with wind, solar and in some cases gas. A major part of what we’re doing locally is to make sure we have the transmission needed to connect these new generators.
In tandem with that, the more you rely on these variable sources like wind and solar, you have to be able to rely on neighbors more than you ever have before. That’s where this regional transmission comes into play by having to tap your neighbors’ reserves and vice versa.
Earlier this month, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 103 to help facilitate the buildout of transmission projects. Why was this bill needed?
At its heart, it removes uncertainty around who builds transmission in the state of Michigan. Right now, without this bill, a federal process that came out 10 years ago created a theoretical competitive solicitation process for certain transmission projects. Even though it hasn’t done much, it’s really slowed down the planning process because transmission companies have to work together to do planning across a broader region. If we’re competing with each other for projects, then we all won’t be as forthcoming with information about projects. We weren’t getting the right projects developed in the planning process.
Bill critics have said it will stifle competition when building transmission. What’s your response?
We’ve had I think three or four projects in the past 10 years that have gone through this (federal) process in the entire (Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s) region. None have been in Michigan and there are none on deck, so there really hasn’t been any competition. (The bill) really allows the planning process to be enhanced because there is more information sharing. The real competition comes when you put the project out for bid.
Parent company ITC recently joined a national coalition supporting a coast-to-coast high-speed charging network for electric vehicles. What role are transmission operators playing in this transition?
Electric vehicles are going to become mainstream very, very quickly. From a transmission perspective, that means two things. One is the overall increase in demand for electricity and what that means from our system perspective. The second is that most charging will happen at home or at work. But if you own a fleet of vehicles, you have to do some large-scale charging simultaneously, and there might be transmission needed to support that. It’s the same with a large-scale public charging application. Looking at fleets and large-scale public charging as well as the broader system impacts of electric vehicles, we’re making sure our system is ready for that when it comes.