Electrical Cooperatives: An Alternative to ComEd?
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 after massive storms June 21 and July 11, no one in Winnetka was out of power more than 12 hours.
As ComEd struggled to restore service to more than 400,000 customers in the aftermath of the June 21 outages and over 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 it power. Winnetka has been generating or supplying its own for more than 100 years, according to Village Director of Water and Electric Brian Keys. Its citizens also pay less.
According to Keys, people in Winnetka paid $59 less for electricity this year than the average ComEd customer expended 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 (IMEA) a cooperative that purchases and furnishes its own electric power, explained IMEA spokesperson 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 citizens on infrastructure it owns and maintains.
Half the IMEA members, like Winnetka, have their own plant. The Winnetka plant is fully effective but only used in a backup emergency or when requested by the IMEA. Until the 1970’s, 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.” That 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 like ComEd brings 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,” he added about the restoration time.
While Winnetka’s century-old system may seem like an attractive alternative to the multiday outages in bad weather and indiscriminate good weather failures effecting citizens 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 a public use after paying fair compensation.
To make matters ever 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.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Springfield) was a member of the House of Representatives at the time. His office did not return calls or emails from Patch since Monday inquiring about his effort then or whether he would be willing 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 Todd Hileman is also 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 (ICC).
“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 Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) who wants legal penalties built into legislation regulating ComEd. “It has to cost them more than they can afford,” he said at an August 1 Town Hall at the Glenview Police Station.
“I agree 100 percent,” Hileman said.