A powerful position

Sean Royston practices calm in ATC’s nerve center.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Maxwell Smart would be proud. For readers old enough to remember, the beginning of each Get Smart television episode followed Smart, the bumbling secret agent for CONTROL, as he entered the agency’s super-secret headquarters through a ridiculous number of secret doors that would slide open and shut as he made his way down an endless hallway.

The journey to American Transmission Co.’s nerve center in Cottage Grove isn’t nearly as dramatic or dark, but it does bring the old comedy to mind. Security is no joke here, however, because neither visitors nor ATC employees are allowed into the inner sanctum unless accompanied by select personnel who escort them through several checkpoints. The security level is welcome, frankly, and not at all surprising considering what the interior space gives access to — the electrical grid.

The inner sanctum

Sean Royston, 47, senior system operator, has worked for ATC for nearly 10 years and in utility operations for about 20.

This is his office.

Daylight does not penetrate these walls where huge grid maps are projected on electronic screens that illuminate the room and allow staff to constantly monitor the system in real time. Displayed in this fashion, the grid maps almost resemble Pac Man game screens, with horizontal and vertical lines of various colors laid out in a fairly orderly fashion. Tiny arrows on the lines indicate the flow of power from point to point throughout the system, a flow that can be interrupted and redirected to keep field workers safe or to work around a maintenance issue or construction area. Several flat-screen TVs placed around the room constantly monitor The Weather Channel.

It’s remarkably quiet at the moment — library-quiet, in fact. A handful of operators, some in training, are situated in kiosks on different floor levels while monitoring computer screens or talking on the phone to field personnel. Standing desks have been a recent and welcome addition, according to Royston, allowing some operators the flexibility to sit or stand during their 12-hour shifts.

Despite the calm atmosphere, employees must always be on alert and ready to shift from periods of relatively low activity to those when all hell breaks loose.

“You are waiting for something to happen in a lot of cases,” Royston admits, “and when it does, you have to do something. You can be waiting for hours.”

Two primary operators are on duty 24/7, watching for downed power lines and electrical interruptions which will show up almost immediately on the electronic screens. Monitors display color-coded grid maps of all the power lines in Madison, Dane County, and beyond, not just ATC-owned lines. Different colors represent different voltages, and it’s easy to differentiate the 69,000-volt lines serving most of the Madison area from the larger 345-kilovolt transmission lines that cut a swath along the Beltline and beyond. Energy travels mostly west to east through Wisconsin because Lakes Michigan and Superior form geographic barriers on two sides. The energy carried along the lines comes from any number of sources: coal, nuclear, solar, wind, and water generation.

Because the grid is a web of multiple interconnected systems working together to provide power where and when it’s needed, operators can observe the flow of energy through the entire region, Royston explains. The overview helps workers spot trending activity that might eventually head this way. “If something happens in L.A., it probably wouldn’t affect us but in Florida, possibly,” he notes. It’s simply a matter of how the national grid is laid out.

A transmission mission

Founded in 2001, ATC was the first multistate, transmission-only utility in the country. It owns and manages more than 9,500 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 530 substations in four states, and serves about 5 million people throughout the eastern two-thirds of Wisconsin plus portions of Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois. The company’s customers include electricity producers and electric distribution companies that exist to move power to where it’s needed.

Inside ATC’s control center, operators monitor the area’s electric grid system 24/7.

In addition to Cottage Grove, ATC has a system operations center in Pewaukee. “All communications are redundant,” Royston explains. “With one phone call we can cover for Pewaukee and vice versa. Each control center is a hot standby for the other, and both are staffed 24/7.” In fact, a separate training room adjacent to this space is designed to serve as Pewaukee’s control system at a moment’s notice should that office have to evacuate. “They have the same thing there for us,” he notes.

Royston’s rotational shift starts around 5 a.m. and resembles that of a firefighter, he says, alternating four days on, three days off, and vice versa the following week.

His first order of business each morning is to check with the night crew to see if there have been any issues and take note of the day’s scheduled work. Operators coordinate forced and planned power outages and redirect power as necessary to ensure that field workers remain safe as they repair, replace, or otherwise work around power lines. Things like required maintenance, line restringing, or pole replacements happen every day, he notes.

By 6 a.m., three crews of field workers begin checking in from substations around the area. “We need to know where they are,” Royston explains. Some are employed by ATC but most are employees of utility partners such as Alliant Energy, MGE, or Wisconsin Public Service. The utilities work together to ensure a continuous flow of energy in a safe and reliable manner.

Throughout the energy network, a huge amount of data is constantly being monitored thanks to thousands of data points that register line conditions every two to four seconds. “In a lot of cases we get trending information that we can monitor to look at the flows. On the other hand, we’re often waiting on an alarm signaling that something requires our action.”



Weather is a typical culprit when it comes to power outages, specifically ice storms, wind, or periods of heavy summer demand.  Luckily, this area hasn’t seen unusually bad weather for several years. “One of our greatest tools is our contingency analysis,” Royston notes, “which takes real-time snapshots to determine what’s the worst that could happen and if it happens, what then?” It only takes two or three simultaneous outages to cause a host of problems, and Royston recounts one thunderstorm system several years ago that resulted in about 10 outages as it progressed west to east across the state.

Which is more difficult to handle, a summer thunderstorm or a winter ice storm? The thunderstorm, Royston explains. It’s the anticipation. “If you’re awaiting a thunderstorm, you know something will happen … eventually. There’s not a lot of prep you can do. You are reacting. It requires a lot of focus and the ability to work under pressure.”

Royston confers with Nathan Wilke, operations engineer.

That’s not to suggest ice storms are a picnic. Whereas a thunderstorm might result in a single downed wire or pole, an ice storm could take down a series of poles, which can take much longer to repair. “Our main job is just keeping people safe,” he reiterates, “and reacting in the correct way. There are a lot of what-ifs and there’s absolutely no room for error.”

The training required to develop those nerves of steel includes a NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corp.) certification that must be maintained every three years with 200 additional hours of continuing education. Operators also receive two years of intense, paid training at ATC.

“It’s not easy,” Royston admits, “but if we don’t do our job safely or correctly somebody could get hurt or killed.”

Additionally, the equipment they are responsible for can cost millions of dollars and take months to replace if an errant decision is made.

This high level of responsibility keeps Royston coming back for more. “We’re in the center of everything,” he says. “You’re pulling the switch. There are a lot of other people in the circle but without your part things won’t happen.

“We know we have people out there that we need to keep safe in order for them to do their jobs. We’re all part of the same system.”

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