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The City’s franchise agreement with Commonwealth Edison was set to expire on July 14. Unable to agree on a new five-year proposal, aldermen extended the existing franchise by 60 days on July 12 in hopes that an acceptable extension could be worked out by their August meeting.

A franchise negotiating team composed of Energy Commission members Joel Freeman and William Siegfriedt, Aldermen Don Wilson, 4th Ward and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward spent the past few months working with representatives from Commonwealth Edison to craft terms for the new franchise extension. Their proposal was to extend the franchise by five years, with an option for the City to renew it for another five years.

While Mr. Freeman – speaking for the Energy Commission – and Ald. Wilson urged Council to approve the extension, Ald. Rainey opposed both the extension and a procedural move that would have allowed the Council to vote on the proposal on July 12.

No longer a producer of electricity but a distributor only, ComEd distributes electricity to Evanston using transmission lines that it owns and that are located on City property. The company provides free electricity for City buildings that do not generate revenue, the cost absorbed by Evanston rate-payers.

ComEd and the City

The franchise agreement – first formed between the City and the electric company in the 1950s – allows ComEd to use their own power lines to distribute electricity to the residents of Evanston over City property.

When the agreement expired in the 1990s, ComEd asked the City to join other municipalities in the Northwest Municipal Conference and agree to a 30-plus year extension.

Rather than sign onto the multi-decade agreement, the City decided to fly solo in its negotiations, creating short-term franchises and demanding improved service from ComEd.

The Stanley report, issued in the late 1990s, showed that many electricity feeders here were operating at greater than 75 percent capacity, the RoundTable reported in 1998. In 1999 the City negotiated the first of several short-term franchise extensions in exchanged for improved service. At that time ComEd promised to implement a four-year tree-trimming cycle – allowing for more frequent but less aggressive trimming than before – and to install a Substation and Distribution System Automation Program, or SCADA, to help identify more quickly the source of a power interruption.

Progress

In Evanston over the past few years, interruptions have been less frequent and of shorter duration than in the Skokie Techny area, which comprises roughly the rest of the North Shore area, according to ComEd data.

ComEd’s data also appear to show that ComEd has whittled down the amount of feeder-circuit overload from 1999-levels. An additional circuit was added to the ComEd substation on Church Street a few years ago, which helped to relieve overloading created by the downtown development said Dennis Marino of the Community Development Department.

An emerging concern of at least some members of the Energy Commision is the condition of ComEd’s underground cables. About 25 percent of the service interruptions in 2009 were caused by underground failures, according to ComEd figures. Although underground cables are not specifically mentioned in the new agreement, Mr. Marino said at the July 9 Energy Commission meeting that underground cables are covered in some of the projects and programs under the proposed new extension agreement. Mr. Siegfriedt told the RoundTable that the Energy Commission had “not quite clarified the problem in the way we want ComEd to address it.”

Mr. Freeman told Council members on July 9 that Energy Commission members felt ComEd’s reliability reports would continue to provide information about underground cables. During the citizen comment portion of the July 12 City Council meeting, Mr. Freeman said, “The Energy Commission has been following ComEd’s outage reports and their standard measures of duration and frequency. We feel that there has been substantial improvement in most categories we have been tracking.”

However, when the proposed ordinance for the extension came before the City Council for introduction, Ald. Rainey said she opposed allowing a five-year extension. “We have done well with three-year franchise extensions she said, adding, “I am going to argue [when the extension ordinance comes before Council for a vote] that things aren’t much better. … Things couldn’t be any worse than they were when we started going to three-year extensions. … This past Fourth of July [when a transformer at the McGaw YMCA burned, causing power outages and entailing the relocation of YMCA residents on July 3] was a very good example of a distribution system that could use some work.” Ald. Rainey also said she did not think ComEd deploys its repair crews in an efficient manner. She also criticized her colleagues on the negotiating team as wanting to be “friends” with ComEd.

Ald. Wilson, who chaired the negotiating team for the City, said, “I disagree with a significant portion of Ald. Rainey’s characterization. … It’s not about being ComEd’s ‘friends’; it’s about locking them into terms we want to lock them into, for a period of time. I and the Energy Commision felt comfortable with these terms for the City.”

The Proposed New Extension

The proposed new iteration of the franchise extension is a five-year extension with a five-year option for the City to renew it.

Under the proposal, ComEd, among other things, would continue to be allowed to use City’s property for its electricity distribution system, would help the City with its goal of getting 20 percent of its power from renewable sources and would provide electricity to certain City buildings at no cost to the City. The company would also trim trees in the parkways on a four-year cycle and provide information twice a year about power outages – frequency, duration, cause and number of customers affected. ComEd would also lease a parking area at the substation at Church Street and Dodge Avenue.