Bob Fischer: Wallpaper doldrums lead to thoughts about electricity

<p>Danielle Gardner / Staff Photographer/Naperville Sun 2009.01.19 Monday, Aurora Studio-- Head Shot of Naperville Sun Business Columnist Bob Fischer</p>

Danielle Gardner / Staff Photographer/Naperville Sun 2009.01.19 Monday, Aurora Studio-- Head Shot of Naperville Sun Business Columnist Bob Fischer

My project for the past several days was removing wallpaper originally hung more than 20 years ago. My frontal lobes were, for the most part, not overly taxed by the task at hand. This resulted in quite a bit of time lost in thought while my hands were busy scraping away old décor that was not leaving without a fight.

One subject receiving an inordinate amount of these random thoughts was electricity. More specifically, where Naperville gets it and associated costs of keeping the lights on.

Naperville’s power comes through the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA). Naperville is one of 33 agencies receiving power through IMEA and, as the largest member, consumes more than a third of the power provided to members.

In 2007, with an eye on rate stabilization and cost predictability going forward, the decision was made to join IMEA. Unfortunately, IMEA rates have been anything but stable recently, and are projected to increase by about 4 percent this year as higher costs of generation make power from IMEA more expensive than other suppliers. A big question is whether this is a short-term market blip or portent of things to come.

In the interests of “being green,” IMEA purchases 5 percent of its power from “renewable” sources, paying a premium for power that does not add pollution. IMEA is also tied into generation technologies and supply contracts that have placed it at a cost disadvantage as the market changed, primarily through the availability of cheap natural gas alternatives.

Excess power not needed by IMEA members is sold to other users at market-driven rates. This practice results in a net loss on every kilowatt not required by member communities and a higher cost to IMEA members to offset operating losses.

Naperville’s rates, established several years ago, were predicated on a lower cost model and are insufficient to cover the current higher costs for power. This has resulted, so far, in a shortfall of more than $5 million in electric accounts. City Council is looking for solutions, but the budget hole grows every day.

One way to address costs is reducing “demand charges,” the premium for power required beyond normal requirements. Smoothing out demand spikes can partially be addressed through user initiated load management, one of the promised benefits of our smart grid.

Unfortunately, the vendor chosen to provide the computer interface enabling users to monitor and adjust usage did not deliver a reliable working solution. That vendor is being sued for breach of contract, and the monitoring software capability and peak demand based cost recovery, remains somewhere in the future.

It seemed a really good idea many years ago to hang wallpaper, and it did serve my needs. In retrospect, and with the experience (and pain) of taking it down fresh in my mind, I am questioning that decision.

The past cannot be changed, though, and all things considered, the wallpaper made sense for many years. I only hope the newly painted walls provide the right answer going forward.

Bob Fischer is president of the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation. Contact him at bobfischer@wowway.com

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