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Hiawatha National Forest and American Transmission Co. develop first-of-its-kind operating plan agreement

GLADSTONE, Mich., and PEWAUKEE, Wis. – The Hiawatha National Forest and American Transmission Co. have developed a first-of-its-kind operating plan between a utility and national forest since the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A) Forest Service adopted a new rule to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires on public land. The plan will protect public lands and improve the safety and reliability of the transmission system while also providing significant long-term cost savings for the public, the company, and the agency. ATC’s cost savings will ultimately be passed down to electric consumers through their local utility.

“The Forest Service has a responsibility to protect and care for Hiawatha National Forest. We also understand how critical electricity is for people in the Upper Peninsula,” said Emily Platt, Acting Hiawatha Forest Supervisor. “That’s why creating an efficient, effective operating plan was so important. We appreciate that ATC cared as much about helping to protect the forest as they do about maintaining a safe and reliable electric grid.”

Across the nation, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service works with utility companies to manage permits for corridors crossing public lands–a significant duty for the agency and the utility companies. ATC operates approximately 95 miles of electric transmission line corridor within the Hiawatha National Forest’s 895,000 acres (about the size of Rhode Island). The new operating plan enables the Hiawatha and ATC to uphold environmental responsibilities more efficiently and effectively, while further reducing the risk of wildfires.

Updating the existing operating plan required an environmental assessment as a part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The assessment was reviewed by several interagency partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others.

Clear expectations save time, add predictability
The new operating plan establishes clear expectations and coordination procedures for the next 30 years, defining the construction, maintenance and vegetation management activities ATC may perform; providing guidance and clarity for activities performed in sensitive areas and establishing a new communication framework between ATC and the Hiawatha.

“The Hiawatha National Forest staff has the enormous responsibility of managing nearly one million acres of protected forest and is understandably cautious about any work conducted within it,” said Jared Winters, director of ATC asset maintenance and commissioning. “At the same time, ATC has a duty and responsibility to ensure safe and reliable electric service to the homes and businesses that count on it every day.”

A critical component of the innovative operating plan is a time-saving geographic information system (GIS)-based communication process. The detailed GIS structure:

  • Guarantees the exchange of key information relevant to all of ATC’s annual work in the Hiawatha utility corridor, simplifying implementation of most routine maintenance.
  • Identifies sensitive areas within the utility corridor; the company will establish operations and maintenance design criteria, with the agency assuming a post-hoc review role. Under this new structure, ATC will prepare a year-end report so that the effectiveness of design criteria can be reviewed and refined on an on-going basis.
  • Establishes clear reporting and response dates, which help ensure electricity is delivered to customers safely and reliably.

Together, the components of the operating plan protect natural resources while simplifying interactions and eliminating unnecessary maintenance delays.

“We hope to use this streamlined operating framework as a model for other utility permits we manage here on the Hiawatha,” said Platt.

A new solution drives cooperation
Dense vegetation, rough terrain, protected species restrictions and a lack of accessibility are just some of the challenges in maintaining the rights-of-way in the Forest. In 2019, ATC approached the Forest Service with another solution–one that hadn’t been used in the Hiawatha before–using an aerial power saw suspended from a helicopter to side trim vegetation. Discussions about the use of aerial saws contributed to the cooperative approach between ATC and Forest staff to update the operating plan.

Wide transmission corridors reduce fire risk
Vegetation that grows too close to high-voltage transmission wires can cause a dangerous situation. Electricity can arc from the wires to a tree branch, igniting a fire or causing an outage. Dense, incompatible vegetation in the transmission line rights-of-way also can hinder access for crews and equipment needed to inspect, maintain, and make repairs to the poles and wires.

While the Hiawatha is not the most fire-prone of the 155 Forest Service units, it is still susceptible to fire. The new operating plan gives ATC the ability to clear rights-of-way to a width of 120 feet. ATC also will follow the same brush disposal methods that the Forest does, which help further reduce fire risk.

An added benefit of clearing the transmission corridors is that it promotes the growth of native grasses, low-growing shrubs and other native ground cover that bees, birds, butterflies, deer, and small animals prefer. Roughly 40% of the 10,000 miles of rights-of-way ATC manages has already been identified as suitable pollinator habitat.

Hiawatha National Forest is one of three National Forests within ATC’s service territory; others include the 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin and the  990,000-acre Ottawa National Forest in the western section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Helicopter to be used to install bird diverters along transmission lines in Columbia, Dane, Sauk, Waupaca and Waushara counties

Work slated for first week of March

PEWAUKEE, Wis. – Beginning the week of March 1, American Transmission Co. will install more than 1,800 bird diverters on the wires of five transmission lines in Columbia, Dane, Sauk, Waupaca and Waushara counties.

Using a light-duty helicopter from Winco Powerline Services, ATC’s construction partner M.J. Electric, LLC will install the bird diverters to help keep birds safe while also ensuring the reliability of the transmission system.

“The diverters increase visibility of the wires and help protect birds from contacting the transmission lines while in flight,” said Michael Warwick, ATC senior environmental project manager. “Most of the diverters will be installed over or adjacent to wetlands and bodies of water to help protect larger, heavy-bodied species that do not maneuver easily such as geese, swans, pelicans, cranes and other waterfowl.”

Local officials, along with local law enforcement, have been notified of the work. Diverters will be installed in the following locations:

  • Columbia County along portions of a 138,000-volt line (east of Portage, Wis.)
    • Within a wetland area east of County Road F and west of County Road EE
    • Over a wetland northwest of the intersection of Military and Quarry Roads
    • Within the Becker Waterfowl Production Area near Highway 22
    • Across the Fox River, north of Pardeeville and west of State Highway 44
  • Dane County along a portion of a 69,000-volt line
    • Near wetland areas running along a railroad track, starting at Dunkirk and Veterans Road and ending just past Collins Road outside of Stoughton, Wis.
  • Sauk County along a portion of a 138,000-volt line (west of Portage, Wis.)
    • South of the Pine Island State Wildlife Area, running southwest from I-90 across County Roads U and T and ending north of Back Road
  • Waupaca County along a portion of a 69,000-volt line
    • Across Hartman Lake within Hartman Creek State Park
  • Waushara County along a portion of a 69,000-volt line
    • Across the Pine River north of County Road A in Wild Rose, Wis.

Note to editors: View maps of the work area: Columbia and Sauk Counties Dane County Waupaca and Waushara Counties. Information about ATC’s avian protection program can be found here. Helicopter flight schedules may vary and are subject to change, based on weather. In the interest of safety, please refrain from stopping, viewing and photographing the work from roadways.

ATC mourns the loss of its first CEO José Delgado

José Delgado, American Transmission Co.’s first President and CEO, passed away on Sunday, January 24, 2021, after suffering a massive stroke a week prior. ATC employees mourn his passing and have his family, friends and the many people he touched throughout his life in our thoughts and prayers.

Those who were fortunate enough to work with Delgado knew him as an inspirational leader who was welcoming, enthusiastic, compassionate and honest. He was vibrant and engaging, and you felt his presence when he walked into a room.

Delgado oversaw the creation of ATC and served as President and Chief Executive Officer of ATC from Jan. 1, 2001, until April 2009 when he became Executive Chairman of the Board of ATC. He retired from ATC on February 28, 2010, and after retiring, continued his involvement in public service activities, electric industry issues and countless industry and corporate boards.

Delgado spent the 27 years prior to ATC at Wisconsin Electric Power Co., beginning his career as an electrical engineer and ending as vice president of electric system operations when he was named to lead the formation of ATC in late 1999. At Wisconsin Electric he worked in the construction, start up and management of fossil power plants. He led the planning, engineering and construction functions and ended up managing the system operations and generation dispatch activities.

The electric transmission industry was Delgado’s passion, he was always striving to make it better. He was the obvious choice to be CEO of the nation’s first multi-state transmission only utility and was committed to making the business model work. He was a visionary and a strong leader to those first employees who took the leap of faith to join this new company and made them believe that ATC would be successful. Delgado took significant risks and was committed to overcoming them and putting ATC on the map.

“Without José’s leadership, ATC would not be the same company it is today,” said President and CEO Mike Rowe. “His approach fostered innovation, teamwork and an entrepreneurial culture that still exists here. We have greatly benefited from the work he did to set us up for success.”

Delgado believed in working together as an industry and led the development of the North American Transmission Forum to improve the whole industry. He cared about people, the community and education, and served on the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents since 2014.

Delgado was a great man who gave so much to our industry and his community, he will always be honored and remembered well at ATC.

Click here to read Delgado’s obituary.

American Transmission Co. updates 10-Year Transmission System Assessment

Connecting to sustainable energy resources is increasing need for new, updated transmission infrastructure

PEWAUKEE, Wis. – American Transmission Co.’s 10-year plan to address the need for electric grid improvements highlights projects that are driven by sustainable energy generation proposals along with ongoing asset maintenance for achieving the highest standards in reliability, efficiency and safety.

“Our long-term planning efforts require flexibility to support an evolving, sustainable energy future,” said Andy Dolan, vice president of system planning. “We have seen over 2,200 megawatts of fossil-fueled generation retire in our footprint since the beginning of 2018; meanwhile, we are studying proposals from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator to connect over 8,200 megawatts of solar generation and almost 1,500 megawatts of wind generation. To plan a robust transmission system, we’re analyzing the trends of this changing generation mix to best meet the needs of our owners and energy consumers.”

Specifically, the plan calls for expenditures of $1.8 billion in asset maintenance, $0.2 billion in regional Multi-Value Projects, $0.4 billion in network projects and between $0.5 billion and $1.1 billion in other capital expenditures.

“Our asset maintenance projects are driven by the need to address aging infrastructure initially installed decades ago,” said Jim Vespalec, director of asset planning and engineering. “Overall, project expenditures in the 2020 plan reflect the measures necessary to maintain and reinforce the system and upgrade its resiliency.”

The full plan is available for viewing at ATC10YearPlan.

ATC continues funding for planting and pollinator habitat projects

PEWAUKEE, Wis. – Recognizing that trees and vegetation are among the features that make communities special places for residents and visitors, American Transmission Co. will continue funding for planting projects in communities in its service area through its Community Planting and Pollinator Habitat programs.

“While we can’t allow trees or tall‑growing vegetation in our rights‑of‑way, we do understand that they are an important part of the landscape,” said ATC Vegetation Management Manager Michelle Stokes. “These programs enable us to encourage and support communities to plant trees and vegetation that will beautify communities in a way that doesn’t compromise the safety and reliability of the electric transmission system.”

The Community Planting Program provides financial support to eligible cities, villages, towns, counties and tribes in ATC’s service area for planting projects on public property, outside transmission line rights-of-way. Program funds can be used to plant trees and other tall-growing vegetation outside the transmission line rights-of-way. ATC has awarded more than 240 communities with funds totaling over $425,000 since 2013.

The Pollinator Habitat Program provides funding for site preparation; purchasing seed, plugs or plants; labor and installation; or other activities to establish quality pollinator habitat. Unlike the Community Planting Program, the Pollinator Habitat Program promotes planting low-growing vegetation within a transmission line right-of-way.

“Part of the reason for the recent decline in pollinator populations is due to loss of habitat,” said ATC Environmental Project Manager Johanna Sievewright. “The Pollinator Habitat Program promotes vegetation that is both compatible with our vegetation management practices and it provides habitat for pollinators, which use the utility corridor as a flight path.”

To qualify for either program, applicants must commit that all current and future planting plans and urban forestry activities near high-voltage electric transmission lines will comply with ATC’s maintenance standards. Cities, villages, towns, counties and tribes within ATC’s service area are eligible to apply for funding through the Community Planting Program. The Pollinator Habitat Program also is open to cities, villages, towns, counties and tribes within ATC’s service area, as well as to entities that allow public access to ATC rights-of-way (e.g. nature preserves, non-profits or public land managers).

Applications for the Community Planting Program and Pollinator Habitat Program are accepted July 1 through Sept. 30, and award recipients will be selected and notified by the end of the calendar year. Awards for both programs range from $100 to $5,000. Additional information can be found at atc-GrowSmart.com.