CHAMPAIGN - When the city of Champaign agreed to kick in $50,000 last month to help Amdocs Inc. get reliable electric power, it was a first.
?This was obviously an unusual situation,? said Craig Rost, the city's deputy to the city manager for development. ?Certainly we've helped with infrastructure requirements before, though not in this way. And under our policy, we're able to consider this basic infrastructure. But it's also 500 jobs. We want to keep them here.?
So with a little help from the city, here they'll stay. For a while anyhow.
But Amdocs' trouble with Illinois Power, officials say, is merely symptomatic of wider problems in the delivery of electric power to businesses, many of them high-tech oriented businesses of the kind the community has and is trying to attract.
Peter Fox, the developer of Fox corporate office park between Fox Drive and Windsor Road, said there've been periodic problems with many of the high-tech-oriented businesses on his properties, including Intel, Volition, Personal Care, Cisco Systems and even Biaggi's restaurant, whose electrical service needs don't approach those of a computer-intensive environment.
The extent of the problem as well as the threat to Amdocs is also what drew in city officials and state legislators to try and broker a solution.
Former state Rep. Tom Berns was in on several of the discussions.
?It's become a bigger and bigger problem,? Berns said. ?When people are told to just build in backup power, you're on your own, that's unacceptable. IP's answer is to build squirrel cages. But that's not ensuring reliable electric power. What Amdocs did on its own to ensure uninterrupted service is really something. They don't just have belts and suspenders. Their belt is nailed to their pants.
?This goes beyond Amdocs. It's an important element of economic development for the whole area,? Berns said.
Fox has been documenting Amdocs power problems for several years. Since October 1998, Fox has documented 24 outages, meaning power interruptions lasting a minute or longer, and 17 ?glitches,? or flickers of power. With Amdocs, he added, power outages have a dominolike effect, with costly consequences for a company that depends on fluid, uninterrupted service to monitor customer accounts for its main client, cellphone giant Nextel.
Shirley Swarthout, a spokeswoman for Illinois Power, said the company made some improvements to upgrade the substation serving Fox properties after nine outages were recorded in 2001. The improvements consisted of building wire frames over electrical connections in the substation to keep out animals. Since then, there has been one outage, in April 2002, she said.
Fox counts two last April, including a substation fire, and six outages through the rest of 2002.
?Our ultimate goal is not to engage in a war of statistics with Illinois Power, but to be able to serve the entire Champaign-Urbana community with reliable power at competitive prices,? Fox said.
Tom O'Brien, vice president of investor relations with Amdocs, confirmed that reliable power is critical to Amdocs being able to retain Nextel as a customer, and therefore staying in Champaign. Within the center itself, he said the company has invested ?millions? in electrical upgrades. But beyond that investment, it required a second transmission feed from Illinois Power.
?This is one of our main data centers. We've got the people there who know what they're doing, and we've made significant investments in that facility over the years,? O'Brien said. ?All we needed was good, clean power to the building.?
Swarthout said IP did make an extra effort to improve the substation and showed good results. Any commercial use is entitled to standard service, which means overhead service delivered at one point. If a customer wants underground service, a second delivery point or alternative feed, that's the customer's responsibility, she said.
?We looked at that situation and made the improvements we thought would provide the best benefits,? she said. ?The situation has improved significantly.
?Individuals who need higher levels of service pay the cost. That's an issue of fairness. We cannot subsidize premium service and not charge for that somewhere else. That said, we believe we are reliable and providing reliable service is a very high priority.?
One of the problems in this dispute is over the definition of reliable power.
Rost, the city's economic development officer, said uninterrupted power that doesn't disrupt business operations is a reasonable expectation. He is among those who have been involved in repeated meetings among IP officials, business users and local legislators.
?But to have guaranteed, uninterruptible power according to IP, businesses have to invest in independent, and expensive, generators and backup systems,? Rost said. ?That doesn't seem reasonable. Continued problems in this regard damage our competitiveness.?
Aside from disputes between Fox, his companies and Illinois Power, Fox two years ago became part of the partnership that continues to build the University of Illinois South Research Park. The park includes several computer-intensive uses, most notably the Motorola research building. There have been no power interruptions within the park, said Fox and UI officials.
The power source for the research park is the UI, which severed itself from Illinois Power several years ago. Abbott Power Plant provides all of the UI's electricity needs, and the UI has its own distribution network.
Lyle Wachtel, the UI's energy guru since the 1980s and the director of the Office of Planning and Budgeting, said cost was a driving reason for the UI to rid itself of IP's electrical service, just as the university had built its own gas pipeline to avoid IP's high gas rates.
?But on the electrical side, what added to the necessity was the reliability, definitely,? said Wachtel. ?We really did see a dif- ference since converting.?
City officials got unanimous support from the city council to kick in the $50,000 for Amdocs' second power feed. But the support wasn't enthusiastic.
?It's really tragic our community can't provide an employer of 500 people with a simple commodity like electrical power,? said council member Tom Bruno, the most vocal of the council members to address the problem.
?The blame for that falls squarely on the utility. I wish we didn't have to spend this money. I wish we had reliable electrical power. But we don't.?
The city also agreed to help obtain a $75,000 state grant, but that application - like all state grants at this time - has been frozen until after state budget decisions clarify themselves.
The total cost of the second feed is $180,000. IP has agreed to contribute $14,000. Fox Development has agreed to pay whatever balance might be necessary.
City officials are also in the process of organizing a communitywide meeting to solicit comment on reliability issues from business, industrial and residential users. The hearing will be conducted with the city of Urbana.
?It's clear it's not an isolated problem,? said Rost. ?That's why we want to open it up to as many interested people as possible.?
You can reach Phil Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at email@example.com.