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South Side left without power more often than North Side

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:13AM

Most of Chicago’s North Side got better electric service than most of the South Side in 2011, according to data ComEd has filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The utility’s listing of each individual power outage in its annual reliability report showed the North Side had 15 wards with the smallest level of power outages, according to a Sun-Times breakdown of the numbers.

But on the South Side, only two wards made it into the lowest category of the Sun-Times analysis: wards that had fewer than 64,000 customer-hours of outages in 2011.

(One outage customer-hour represents the amount of time an individual electric customer or household spent without power.)

In general, the South Side is poorer and has more minorities than the North Side, but ComEd says that’s not why the area has worse reliability.

“The South Side tends to have much more overhead [cable] exposure,” said Terry Donnelly, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the utility. “The North Side tends to have more underground conductors and the South Side tends to have more tree density.”

Donnelly said ComEd tries to address disparities by tracking “different reliability metrics in every community we serve.” He said the utility meets annually with each community and “each year we design reliability improvement plans specific to each ward or municipality.”

Trees damaging overhead lines are the biggest cause of power outages, Donnelly said.

However, residents say a lack of maintenance and aging infrastructure have taken a toll on the South Side.

Carlos Lewis, 55, who has lived all his life in the 4300 block of South Indiana, said a transformer behind his house was at least 30 years old and constantly shorted out for years, regularly plunging his neighborhood into darkness.

“You’d expect with major storms to get a power outage, but if we got a spring shower, we got a power outage,” Lewis said.

The transformer behind his home was finally replaced “when it blew up three times in one day” earlier this summer. Since then there have been no outages.

Up the street from Lewis, Lufti Shuman, owner of King Food Mart at 43rd and Indiana, said he has had to throw away thousands of dollars worth of frozen food over the past two summers due to power failures.

“For others it’s suffering, for me it’s losing money,” he said of the outages.

Shuman’s business and Lewis’ home are in the 3rd Ward, which runs along either side of King Drive and includes parts of Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard, Fuller Park and Kenwood. ComEd reported nearly 158,000 customer-hours without power in the ward in 2011, the fourth worst total in the city.

By comparison, the 43rd Ward’s Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side had only 57,000 customer hours of outages.

Qiana Acklin, 33, lives in the 4500 block of South Drexel Boulevard in the nearby 4th Ward, which endured 145,000 customer-hours without electricity.

“I think maybe it has to do with race, that plays a factor,” she said when told of the disparity between her 4th Ward and most North Side wards.

Acklin said power outages hit her neighborhood “three, four times a month,” and last February the power was out for two days. She said the outages threaten her health because she uses an electric nebulizer machine to treat her asthma.

“What if I’m having an asthma attack and I need to use my machine?” she said.

The 3rd and 4th wards are majority black, but white wards on the South Side were also hit hard. The 19th Ward, which covers parts of Beverly and Mount Greenwood, is 66 percent white and had 162,000 customer-hours of outages. Whites are the largest group in the 23rd Ward, which includes parts of Garfield Ridge. That ward had 146,000 customer-hours of outages.

The 41st Ward in the far northwest corner of the city was atypical for the North Side in that it posted the highest outage customer-hours in the whole city: 283,000. This was mostly due to storms that hit the Edison Park and Norwood Park neighborhoods in July 2011.

Suburbs, with even more above-ground power lines and more trees to knock them down, suffered more frequent and longer outages than the city.

Areas in wealthy North Shore suburbs were harder hit in 2011 than middle- and working-class south and southwestern suburbs.

Highland Park, for example — with a population of 29,000, smaller than any Chicago ward — had 305,000 customer-hours of outages.

Throughout ComEd’s territory, the total number of power interruptions increased by 8 percent in 2011, but the total amount of power outage minutes doubled.

ComEd blamed an unprecedented number of severe storms that struck the area, and it has petitioned the ICC for a waiver exempting it from paying damages to those who lost goods or money as a result.

ICC staff, the Illinois Attorney General and the Citizens Utility Board have opposed the waiver, saying that poor maintenance by ComEd led to greater damage from the storms than would have otherwise occurred.

The ICC has yet to rule on ComEd’s waiver request.

For the future, ComEd says its new Smart Grid technology — part of a bill that hiked rates and was passed last year over Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto — will over the next 10 years greatly reduce the amount of time necessary to identify and restore power outages throughout its system.

For interactive maps of city and suburban power outages as well as a list of each power outage by community, go to

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