by Jon E. Jipping, ITC Holdings Corp.
As chief operating officer of ITC, my job is to keep the lights on. I lead an expert group of professionals who work to maintain and upgrade our existing transmission infrastructure. The stakes are high: Without reliable power, American families and businesses could not go about their daily lives. Unfortunately, disruptions are becoming more frequent because of strains on our aging power grid. The good news is we know what it will take to turn this trend around.
To understand how we should approach reliability, we must understand the grid’s current state. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the average amount of time power is disrupted each year in the U.S. is more than twice as long as in any other developed nation, including Austria, Spain, Italy and the U.K. The CRS also found that the U.S. has the second-highest number of outages per person per year. These outages have serious consequences. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that blackouts cost U.S. businesses $150 billion annually.
Building the modern, reliable infrastructure that we need requires a two-part approach. First, the marketplace must continue to accommodate transmission-only developers. ITC focuses solely on transmission, not generation like most traditional electric utilities. By specializing in only transmission, we build expertise while achieving dramatic economies of scale.
Reliability and power quality are vital to U.S. manufacturing. A 2013 survey revealed that 99 percent of Americans believe the electric grid is important to the country, national economy and local economies. Business leaders agree on the consequences related to grid investment.
“At the end of the day, all aspects of the infrastructure, whether it’s the energy grid or something else, impact our economy,” said a senior executive with a Fortune 500 information technology company. “The more we invest in that, the better it is for the economy in terms of growth, in terms of resiliency, in terms of reliability, and to some degree even credibility for other countries when they do business with us.”
The second part of grid modernization is performance. Existing grid owners must take better care of their assets. ITC regularly takes fundamental actions to prevent outages and reduce their duration when they do occur. First, we regularly inspect each component of our infrastructure to make sure each item is optimally maintained. We do not wait to hear reports of failure before acting. Second, we have a “find-it, fix-it” mentality. Conventional wisdom might be to ignore the small stuff, but we fix or replace equipment when a deficiency is reported before it turns into something bigger. Finally, we complete all the maintenance we identify every year.
These pillars are simple: Always check for problems, fix all problems and fix them in a timely manner. As a result of our rigorous adherence to this common-sense approach, ITC garners consistently high reliability rankings. If the entire industry would adopt these measures, the U.S. could be the envy of the world again when it comes to vital electricity infrastructure.
Internalizing a diligent and proactive mentality will be even more important as we anticipate rapid changes in the generation mix over the coming decades. Increased production from distributed energy resources and utility-scale intermittent resources, coupled with a decrease in generation from coal plants, will change our energy use.
Transmission lines will need to facilitate this new generation mix and continue to deliver power to consumers while balancing fluctuations on the electric grid. Without new lines, improved system components and regular maintenance, our grid might not be up to the challenge. Operational excellence for the transmission system will enable society to take advantage of new energy technologies.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. electric grid a D+ on its most recent “Infrastructure Report Card.” The goal should not be to earn a passing grade to merely graduate. The goal should be to achieve our full potential. We can do it, but we must start now.
Jon E. Jipping is executive vice president and chief operating officer of ITC Holdings, the nation’s largest independent electricity transmission company. He is responsible for transmission system planning, system operations, engineering, supply chain, field construction and maintenance, information technology, facilities and security.
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