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Electrical Cooperatives: An Alternative to ComEd Locally?

In the wake of summer storms and massive outages, a look at Winnetka's independent approach.

While some North Shore residents were without electricity for up to five days  no one in Winnetka was out of power more than 12 hours. 

Ascustomers in the aftermath of the June 21 outages and more than 800,000 in the wake of the July 11 weather, Winnetka took care of itself. 

Communities like Glenview, Highland Park, Lake Forest and Wilmette rely on ComEd to provide power. Winnetka has been generating or supplying its own for more than 100 years, according to Brian Keys, the village’s director of water and electric. Winnetka residents also pay less. 

According to Keys, people in Winnetka paid $59 less for electricity this year than the average ComEd customer spent for the same amount of power in 2010.

Winnetka is one of 42 communities throughout the state that belongs to the Illinois Municipal Energy Agency, a cooperative that purchases and furnishes its own electric power, explained IMEA spokesman Doc Mueller.

The closest communities to Winnetka belonging to the IMEA are Naperville and St. Charles. Most, like Springfield, are downstate. Other than Springfield, which produces power in its own plant, the IMEA purchases electricity on the wholesale market for its members. 

Winnetka’s power is delivered via ComEd wires to a substation in Northfield, Keys said. From there, the village distributes a current to its residents on infrastructure it owns and maintains. 

Half the IMEA members, like Winnetka, have their own plant. The Winnetka plant is fully effective but only is used in a backup emergency or when requested by the IMEA. Until the 1970s, the village used the plant as its source of power. 

“We fire it up monthly for maintenance,” Keys said. “Other than that, we only use it in an emergency or if the IMEA requests us to run it,” which rarely happens. 

How It Works

When the power goes out, Winnetka utilizes its own crews and trucks to restore it. If a community is beyond its capacity it can call for help from other members, just as ComEd sometimes brings in crews from out of state.

“We needed help from Springfield after the June 21 (storms), but everyone was back up in 12 hours,” Keys said. “After July 11, it was less than 12 hours." 

While Winnetka’s century-old system may seem like an attractive alternative to the multiday outages in bad weather and indiscriminate good weather failures that affect residents in nearby communities, Mueller warns it is no easy task. 

“A city must pass two referendums," he explained. "If they pass, you have to negotiate with ComEd to purchase their lines and poles and other infrastructure.

“If you can’t agree with them, a city has condemnation,” he added, speaking about the power of a government to take property for public use after paying fair compensation. 

To make matters even more challenging, municipalities used to issuing tax-exempt bonds to finance long-term capital projects are prohibited from using their tax-free status to build or maintain electrical facilities and infrastructure, according to Mueller. 

The prohibition stems from a nearly 28-year-old federal law passed when Chicago began to investigate providing its own power, Mueller said. He could not confirm whether ComEd lobbied for the passage of the legislation. 

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Springfield, was a member of the U.S. House at the time. His office has not returned calls or emails from Patch since Monday, asking about his effort then, or whether he would be willing to try to change the legislation today.

Officials Weigh In 

Both Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and Lake Forest Mayor James Cowhey Jr. were intrigued with the idea of municipally owned utilities and agreed it required some research. Rotering plans to look at municipalization as an alternative, she said.  

“We’ll look into all options that will help us," Cowhey added. "We’ll have to do our homework to see if it will help. It’s worth looking into if it will help our homeowners.”

A number of years ago, both Lake Forest and Wilmette were experiencing outages arising from circuits in localized areas. Both communities worked with ComEd to improve those areas and reduce non-weather-related outages. Both places have seen improvement. 

“We went through an upgrade three years ago," Wilmette Village Manager Timothy Frenzer said. "We made (ComEd) bring us a plan. We’re now within the top quartile of performance. It would be cost-prohibitive to provide a grid for our community.” 

Glenview Village Manager  also is concerned about the costs. He plans to force ComEd to improve its reliability and accountability through lobbying of the village’s state legislators and the Illinois Commerce Commission

“It would cost us tens of millions of dollars,” Hileman said of the Winnetka system. “We have to make (ComEd) accountable and transparent. It must all be reviewed by the ICC before they come with a rate petition.” 

Hileman echoed the sentiments of state , who wants legal penalties built into legislation regulating ComEd. “It has to cost them more than they can afford,” he said at an Aug. 1 Town Hall meeting at the Glenview Police Station. 

“I agree 100 percent,” Hileman said.

John Welch Fitness August 13, 2011 at 02:40 AM
My share of the Grid is Green as 100% of my supply is sourced from locally certified wind power! Bye-Bye Brown!

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