Power woes spark search for answers

Power woes spark search for answers

When the power goes out at Barb Teterycz's house, she usually heads to her car and goes shopping.

Except the time of the brownout when the garage door opener malfunctioned and the door kept opening and closing.

In that case, she pulled a circuit breaker to stop the door and went to a neighbor's house.

"If it was a good day, we've had the power out. If it was raining, if the wind blew, if the squirrels were out, we've lost power," said Teterycz, who has lived in southwest Champaign since 1983.

On Halloween night she lost power for about two hours. A neighbor lost power for about five hours.

"It's not the worst thing in the world, but it's certainly an inconvenience," said neighbor Mary Minneci, who estimates she has lost power about four times this year. The outages lasted anywhere from two to four hours each time.

"What I want to know is," Teterycz said, "what is Ameren planning on doing about it, what is the problem, why does this area have so many outages?"

Cities receive, review audit

As it happens, those are the same questions city officials have had.

"Where are the outages occurring, what may be occurring, and can we fix them?" said Trisha Crowley, deputy city attorney with the city of Champaign.

What the city also wants to know is this: Since Ameren purchased Illinois Power last fall, is the company catching up with any deferred maintenance and is it making further improvements to the electrical system, Crowley said.

In September 2004, St. Louis-based Ameren purchased Illinois Power from Houston-based Dynegy. That's when Illinois Power became AmerenIP.

In exchange for not opposing Ameren's purchase of Illinois Power, the cities of Champaign and Urbana signed an agreement with Ameren in August 2004. The agreement outlines several actions Ameren needs to take, among them spending millions of dollars in upgrading equipment.

Ameren committed to spending a minimum of $6 million each year in the first two years after it purchased Illinois Power. The money must be spent on capital projects and other maintenance projects. Ameren also agreed to spend a maximum of $1 million in fiscal years 2005 and 2006 on projects that the cities and the utility company agree are priorities.

Another requirement was for Ameren to compile an audit of its electric transmission and distribution systems that serve the cities and the surrounding area.

"We wanted the audit to get a clear idea about what the problems are," said Champaign City Manager Steve Carter. "We think many of the problems relate to lack of maintenance and keeping all the equipment up-to-date as they should have."

However, he also added that Champaign has had a "tremendous amount of development," which may have caused the power company to have problems keeping up with rising demand.

Ameren has provided the cities with the audit, and the cities' electrical consultant, R.W. Beck, is reviewing it, Crowley said. (Ameren will reimburse the cities for up to $50,000 of the consultant's fees, according to the agreement.)

"The audit shows generally that they have a lot of old equipment out there that probably needs to be updated. But I don't think we're in a position to intelligently make a decision on what work needs to be done," Carter said.

After the consultant and city staff finish reviewing the audit and the consultant's analysis, they will present reports to the city councils probably around January, Crowley said.

Electric work so far

"It's frustrating to have your power out," said Shirley Swarthout, spokeswoman for AmerenIP.

She said the company has spent millions of dollars this year on regular maintenance and updating equipment to cut back on power outages.

So far in 2005, AmerenIP crews have inspected all the main electric lines in the cities to identify any preventive maintenance that may be needed, Swarthout said.

"We're looking for things that could have been damaged in a storm but have not caused an outage, such as a cracked insulator," she said.

AmerenIP crews have replaced some equipment and upgraded some substations. They've replaced switches, added new circuit breakers and added new transformers in substations to add capacity where there's been growth, she said. For example, at the Leverett Road substation, the company built a new distribution circuit that now serves North Prospect Avenue.

And the company has installed animal guards at some substations in the area. These are electrifying fences, like bug zappers, that deliver shocks to animals, such as squirrels, when they attempt to cross the fence. They've added animal guards to pole-mounted transformers as well.

"We know that these animal guards have reduced outages," she said.

Swarthout confirmed that Teterycz and Minneci's neighborhood has had several major outages since the summer. In July, a storm with high winds caused an outage. In September, wind and lightning damaged major transmission lines, causing outages. In October, a car hit a major utility pole that caused outages.

Then there was the Halloween night incident when a fuse opened on a segment of an underground primary line. That one could have been caused by a number of things because underground cable is exposed to minerals and rocks, she said.

"The storms and the traffic accidents – we don't have any control over those. And those kind of outages are frustrating to us especially when we are doing a lot of work to make sure the system is reliable," Swarthout said.

But what is especially frustrating to some consumers (in addition to the hassle of reprogramming microwaves or other appliances) is not being able to cancel their accounts with the power company and sign up with another one.

"It's not like I can call them (AmerenIP) up and say I don't want you anymore," Teterycz said.

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