Amid acres and acres of corn, soybeans and beets, a new 140-mile network of high-voltage power transmission lines has started to take shape in Michigan’s Thumb area, promising to bring more and potentially less-expensive electricity to metro Detroit.
The $512-million energy superhighway is critical to moving the power generated by a growing number of wind farms in the Thumb to residents and businesses in more-populated areas in southeast Michigan, Ohio, other Midwest states and Ontario.
The network of new transmission lines is the first to be built in the Thumb since World War II. It is the biggest project ever undertaken by Novi-based ITC Holdings, the nation’s largest independent electricity transmission company.
“If you take care of it, it will last forever,” said Brian Slocum, ITC’s vice president of engineering.
The Thumb has become a magnet for wind farms because it has the most consistent and strongest winds in the state. From now through 2014, seven wind farms are expected to launch operations, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission.
But the Thumb’s aging transmission lines lack the capacity to carry any more power, so new ones needed to be built.
The increase in wind farms is being driven by a 2008 Michigan law that requires that 10% of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources, such as wind power, by 2015. This November, a ballot initiative will ask voters to increase that percentage to 25% by 2025.
Several miles northeast of downtown Frankenmuth, 60 to 70 workers are building the first portion of the new transmission lines. A Michigan company, Iron Mountain-based M.J. Electric, serves as general contractor for the first phase of the project.
Because the new transmission lines will help provide more electricity to other Midwestern states, Michigan residents won’t be the only ones paying for the project’s $512-million cost.
According to the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, Michigan residents will pay 20% of the total cost, with residents in 10 other Midwest states bearing the rest of the expense.
Neither ITC nor MISO could provide the per-resident cost and potential savings from the Thumb Loop project. But MISO estimates show that the project and 16 others in the Midwest will cost Michigan residents $7.20 per year. MISO said this cost will be offset by savings of $13 to $19 per year on residents’ electricity bills, resulting in net annual savings of $5.80 to $11.80.
Scott Simons, a spokesman for Detroit Edison, would not confirm MISO’s numbers. “There are a number of factors that go into our electric rate cases, and it’s too early to tell whether lower transmission costs would overshadow other parts of a rate case,” he said.
Michigan residents will not be paying for the Thumb Loop project until the first phase of it goes into service late next year.
The 140 miles of new transmission lines are to run through four counties – Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac and St. Clair – and will be constructed in three phases. In addition to installing the lines, workers will be building four substations, where the lines can be switched on or off.
Construction of the first phase – a 62-mile stretch from northeast of Frankenmuth to a little east of Bad Axe – started in April and is expected to be finished in July 2013. It is to go into operation in late 2013.
During the second and third phases, transmission lines will be installed over 78 miles – from the Fitz substation, about 10 miles west of Marysville in St. Clair County, up to the Bad Axe area.
All 140 miles are expected to go into service by the fourth quarter of 2015.
The new 345,000-volt transmission lines are being built alongside the existing 120,000-volt ones, which will continue to be used.
But there are some areas along the route where transmission lines don’t exist.
The massive project involves 1,120 miles of wire and 791 steel poles spaced 800 to 1,100 feet apart.
The poles rise anywhere from 130 feet to 180 feet. A total of 42 transmission towers will also be constructed.
The aluminum wires strung from the poles have a steel core and feature a twisted design to prevent ice from sticking, which helps avoid outages.
Curt Carroll, the Thumb Loop’s project manager, said the construction of the transmission lines won’t stop during the winter.
Workers can assemble and install two poles a day or one transmission tower.
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