ILLINOIS - Utility Takes Steps to Avoid Summer Blackouts : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Title: Illinois Utility Takes Steps to Avoid Last Summer's Blackouts

Story Filed: Wednesday, April 26, 2000 3:29 AM EST

Apr. 26 (Chicago Tribune/KRTBN)--As warmer weather approaches, memories of rotten food and shuttered businesses during last year's blackouts continue to haunt Commonwealth Edison.

And after a year of staff firings, fix-it plans and thousands of pages of progress reports to the city and regulators, ComEd still isn't promising a summer free of power outages. But this summer will better than last, Edison says in a 4-inch-thick report to the city of Chicago and the Illinois Commerce Commission.

"I don't want people to get overly optimistic," cautioned Carl Croskey, ComEd's point man in charge of the transmission and distribution system overhaul. "There will be outages no matter what, but they should be shorter and fewer of them."

Last summer, outages lasting up to four days in parts of the area left businesses without income and homes without air conditioners, computers and lights.

This year, among other steps, the company says it will deploy new emergency "SWAT crews" if the power goes out, and it will curtail executive bonuses if there's a sustained outage. Regulators praised the new measures and the company's efforts to upgrade power-generating and transmission equipment but acknowledged that the system still has many problems.

"On the positive side they seem to be doing a great deal, but the troubling aspect is there is so much to do," said Richard Mathias, ICC chairman. "We have aggressively encouraged ComEd to make certain their reliability this summer is better than in the past."

Business owners who suffered lost revenue last summer say they are pleased with ComEd's response to their requests for better communication during outages since last summer, but many add that they're nervous about the coming heat.

"The Addison and California substation still needs a lot of work," said Alex Wohn, owner of the Blue Iris Caf and president of the Central Lake View Merchants' Association.

Wohn said ComEd has tried to work with the businesses, but he's reluctant to blindly believe that service will be great this summer. The association staged a press conference last fall, frustrated at the lack of answers about the blackouts.

"I have mixed feelings about where we are today," he said Tuesday. "On the one hand I feel like I can't trust it when they say the repairs have been made because we've heard that before. On the other hand I want to think they've taken us seriously.

"But I'm still going to buy dry ice," he said, referring to his now-regular summer routine of keeping the material on hand in case of outages.

The association is working on an emergency plan with ComEd that would help small business owners get more reliable information during outages, among other things.

"We can't guarantee a summer without incident," the company wrote in the status report. "We'll restore power faster than before and keep our customers better informed than we have in the past. But as we announced in September, this is a two-year recovery program. We are at about the 6-mile marker--with 20 miles to go."

ComEd, for example, said in its report that it is behind schedule on corrective substation maintenance in all areas except the North Shore. But the company is on or ahead of schedule on many other key areas, the report says. Among them: substation preventive maintenance throughout its service territory and corrective maintenance on overhead wires in the city.

"There's no doubt Edison has made an effort to prevent what happened last summer from recurring," said Martin Cohen, executive director of watchdog group Citizens Utility Board. "But they have acknowledged it will take two years to get the system to reliability and we're not there yet."

The company said it has cut the average power outage to 131 minutes across its entire service region, a 38 percent reduction. In the city, it has cut the average outage to 183 minutes, a 23 percent decrease since last year.

The average number of outages per customer systemwide fell by 21 percent compared with last year, to 1.43 interruptions in March.

For the city alone, however, the number actually rose by 8 percent. ComEd officials attributed the increase to a March 4 substation fire that cut power to more than 7,000 customers and two contractor dig-ins on March 15 and March 30 that also cut power.

"This summer? Who can say? Maybe we'll get lucky and have a cool summer," said Cohen, CUB's executive director. "And maybe the Cubs will win the World Series."

While this summer's service is no guarantee, meanwhile, it looks as though ComEd can count on a more favorable calculation in the way some deregulated business contracts are set.

At the end of March the company filed an emergency motion with the Illinois Commerce Commission seeking to throw out the current system of calculating rates, saying the so-called Neutral Fact Finder is an inaccurate system that relies on reviews of past contracts. The NFF comes up with rates that are too low in summer months and too high in winter, critics argue.

Now, rates in the deregulated sector of its markets, which include only some business customers to date, will be set according to actual electric market rates published by Bloomberg and other financial market publishers.

ComEd argues the new system will set more realistic summer rates, encouraging competitors to enter the local market to compete for customers. If the rates stay too low, officials argued, it would quash competition.

By Janet Kidd Stewart

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-- (, April 26, 2000

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