ComEd report highlights South Side problems

ComEd representatives told a City Council committee yesterday that power outages disproportionately affect wards on the South Side -- a fact that prompted close questioning from some aldermen.  

"It is consistently, over and over, the South Side of the city of Chicago that is on those lists," said Ald. Virginia Rugai (D-19), who chairs the council's Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities.

Rugai expressed frustration that her ward in particular has repeatedly been identified as a problem area by the company.

"Over the past eight years, the 19th Ward has been the worst-performing ward in the city of Chicago, despite millions of dollars that you've told me has been put in our community," Rugai said.

In addition to the 19th, ComEd's list of underperforming wards includes the 6th, 12, 41st and 45th.

Placement on the list is determined primarily by frequency of power outages, said J. Barry Mitchell, president and CEO of ComEd.

Mitchell said he considers the term "underperforming" to be "a little deceptive."

"It's underperforming relative to the average, but I would suggest that for the most part, the performance is very good in all these wards, " said Mitchell.

ComEd officials touted statistics showing that in 2007, 71 percent of its Chicago customers experienced only one outage, or none at all.

The average duration of the interruptions at 138 minutes, down from 150 minutes in 2006.

Without the severe thunderstorms that swept the city in late August of last year, outage duration would have been 90 minutes, a 22 percent improvement from the five-year average, said Mitchell.

ComEd has targeted the five South Side wards for special efforts, including tree trimming, replacement of transformers and inspection by engineers to identify damaged wires and connections.

Mitchell noted that the special attention aimed at last year's targeted wards resolved similar problems.

But Rugai said the fact that the 19th ward had surfaced on the list for the fifth time indicated that new, more permanent strategies were required to combat the problems.

According to Mitchell, though, much of the discrepancy can be pinned on weather patterns that yield harsh storms on the South Side.

Company officials and staff at the Department of Environment also say that faulty underground cables that underlay parts of the city are also cause for concern.

ComEd officials also unveiled plans to pursue the construction of a "smart grid" for Northern Illinois. The centerpiece of the project is an automatic meter reader that will provide real-time data on energy consumption to consumers.

The automated meter technology would eventually be integrated into a system of advanced switches that would provide faster, automated restoration of power to customers in the event of outages.

Mitchell said the company was backing off of an attempt to include funding for the project in its current request for rate increases. Instead, it will ask state regulators to allow a series of workshops to seek public input on the plan.

But that proposal would allow ComEd to eventually begin billing customers for the cost of creating the smart grid.

"It's a very extensive project, and we want to make sure that we make the investment that our customers want us to make us to make," said Mitchell.