Weather Updates

Analysis gives ammo to areas that say ComEd gives them short shrift

Adam Vick his girlfriend Brittany Samuel who live McCullom Lake have had throw out refrigerator full spoiled food twice this

Adam Vick and his girlfriend, Brittany Samuel, who live in McCullom Lake, have had to throw out a refrigerator full of spoiled food twice this month because of power outages. “I wish somebody had told me about this before I bought my house,” he said. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 5, 2011 5:19PM

Burgers don’t last long in Adam Vick’s freezer lately.

If Vick doesn’t get to them, the power outages do.

“I wish someone had told me about this before I bought my house,” the 26-year-old said Thursday, after the latest lengthy ComEd outage forced him and his girlfriend to throw out a fridge full of spoiled food for the second time this month.

Exasperated residents in his tiny northwest suburb of McCollum Lake have a saying, according to village spokeswoman Karen Scully: “If there’s a storm in Africa, we lose power.”

With ComEd recently ranked 112th out of 124 utility companies nationwide and second worst in the Midwest by a recent JD Power and Associates residential customer satisfaction survey, it’s a sentiment likely echoed across the Chicago area — despite Exelon CEO John Rowe’s claim to investors in the past week that “the ComEd system is performing better than ever before.”

A Sun-Times analysis of ComEd data provided to the Illinois Commerce Commission shows McCollum Lake residents have more reason to gripe than most. Even not counting storms, electric customers there spent more time per person without power than any other town in the six-county area.

The analysis of all 2010 reported power outages — the first to compare towns of different sizes on a per-person basis — also provides ammunition to suburban critics who felt their communities were given a low priority by the utility giant during a record-breaking power outage that saw nearly 870,000 customers lose power for up to a week after a short, sharp “derecho” storm hit July 11.

The Sun-Times looked at data that included both storm days and non-storm days, but for our town rankings we excluded the 22 worst storm days to focus on comparing day-to-day reliabilty.

However, during the 22 worst storm days, customers in Chicago were just as likely to suffer power outages as suburban customers, yet the average suburban customer had to wait more than an hour longer in the dark to be reconnected, the data shows. In the worst hit suburbs of Lake County, the average wait to be reconnected after a storm was as much as 31 hours longer.

ComEd said that’s because in the city most lines are underground. “As you move away from the downtown area and into the suburbs, there are more overhead distribution lines and more trees that are more susceptible to storm damage, which produces more individual customer outages, which take longer to restore after a storm,” the utility said in written answers to Sun-Times’ questions.

Each suburb also has its own problems.

Hometown Mayor Kevin Casey, whose constituents experienced four times as many power cuts as the average Chicagoan in 2010, said his south suburban town’s layout does not have alleys, making it hard for ComEd workers to trim back trees near power lines. But he added, “We’re very small comapred to Chicago, so sometimes its harder to get noticed.”

The friction ComEd has experienced in north suburban Northfield illustrates how difficult its position can be. When its workers vigorously cut back foliage near power lines there in 2009, tree-loving city officials were reported to have complained that ComEd had committed a “chain saw massacre.”

A year later Northfield was second only to McCollum Lake for non-storm related power outages.

Now, following this month’s outages, village officials unhappy with ComEd’s storm response are again demanding a meeting with ComEd management. “There’s a lot of towns up here that are pretty frustrated right now,” said Northfield official Steve Noble, who has participated in conference calls between ComEd and nearby communities after this summer’s storms.

With falling trees being a major contributor to power outages, suburbs with more trees and older trees could be expected to fare worse. But what about Chicago, where trees are fairly evenly distributed?

The West and South sides, whose neighborhoods have long topped crime and poverty charts, also had the least reliable electricity supplies, the data shows. The 10 wards with the least-reliable service are all on the South and West sides, while all but two of the 10 most reliably served wards are north of the Loop.

South and West-siders also waited in the dark longer. Outages in Streeterville were typically fixed six times faster than power cuts in Little Village.

ComEd said it measures its reliability by looking at circuits, not wards or towns. “We look at circuit by circuit no matter what the area of the city it serves,” said Michelle Blaise, vice president of engineering. The utility also said that one year’s worth of data was not enough to draw conclusions.

The latest storm-related outages come as ComEd tries to push through a controversial bill it says will secure funding for an upgraded “smart grid” that will prevent and shorten outages but which critics, including the Illinois attorney general’s office, say will guarantee it huge profits while weakening reliability standards for years to come.

Under the current legislation, ComEd is required to prove its reliability performance to regulators before winning rate hikes, whereas under the bill the balance of power would shift so that regulators seeking to prevent a price hike would have to show that ComEd has failed to meet reliability standards, according to Illinois Commerce Commission executive director Tim Anderson.

Crucially, ComEd would not be judged on its performance on the worst nine storm days each year.

ComEd says that’s necessary to allow a fair year-to-year analysis that excludes extreme weather events beyond its control, but critics say it will allow ComEd to dodge improvements to its storm preparedness and response.

The utility said the new performance standard “is designed to accurately measure ComEd’s day-to-day reliability performance; it is not designed to measure how lucky we are in avoiding severe weather.”

Data shows the discrepancy between the service the city and the suburbs receive is almost entirely accounted for during the worst storm days. Excluding them would “distort reality,” said Paul Gaynor, chief of the public interest division for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“The smart grid might be the best thing ever, but what happens if it’s not?” he added. “ComEd will still get double -digit profits.”

The bill has passed the Legislature, but Gov. Pat Quinn has vowed to veto it. Senate President John Cullerton, who supports the bill, has placed it under an administrative hold — a delaying tactic that keeps it off the governor’s desk and allows the bill’s supporters to regroup.

If the bill isn’t rewritten with far stricter targets, ComEd will have little incentive to improve, according to Gaynor.

“It’s a monopoly,” he said.

Contributing: Dave McKinney

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