Aldermen want to look into the possibility. Plus, they’ll get to renegotiate issues like renewable energy, diverse hiring and rate hikes.

By Kim Bellware

(Photo: pkmonaghan/Flickr)

(Photo: pkmonaghan/Flickr)

Chicago has its first chance in nearly three decades to broker a new contract with the energy giant ComEd, but several aldermen suggest the city should scrap the relationship—which dates back to 1947—altogether and turn energy delivery over to municipal control. 

Ald. Daniel LaSpata (1st) is among 22 City Council members who want to at least consider the possibility of making the utility city-owned, much in the same way that the CTA went from a network of privately owned rails to a government agency in the 1940s. LaSpata, who sits on the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, recently sponsored legislation calling for a feasibility study into alternatives to ComEd control.

“There are some [aldermen] who deeply believe [in] pushing back against giants privatizing, in taking these public services and bringing them back to public control. Others are looking at it as a transparency issue,” LaSpata told City Bureau, pointing to support from the legislation’s 21 co-sponsors.

If LaSpata’s order passes, the city’s Fleet and Facility Management Department would be responsible for administering the study and delivering by the end of the year. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not signaled affirmative support, but LaSpata remained optimistic that there hasn’t been pushback yet, either. 

Why it matters

The city’s contract with ComEd, known as a franchise agreement, has only been renewed twice in more than 70 years; the last time was in 1992. Franchise agreements allow utilities like ComEd to access the city’s roads, sidewalks and airspace. Lawmakers can negotiate things like clean energy sources, diversity hiring and schedules for infrastructure improvements—issues that directly touch residents’ lives. 

The City Council punted on the diverse hiring issue during the 1992 contract talks: Aldermen voted down an amendment that would have forced ComEd to give a third of its business to women- and minority-owned firms. 

It’s “a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” LaSpata said. 

The proposed feasibility study would examine how a switch away from ComEd would look financially and procedurally, including how it would be financed and which bodies of lawmakers would be required to vote on it.

ComEd declined to comment on the legislation, citing ongoing negotiations. Melissa Washington, the vice president of governmental and external affairs for ComEd, defended the company’s service during a July 30 appearance on Chicago Tonight, alongside LaSpata. 

“We think reliability is at its record high, and we’ve focused on affordability; the rate we have in the Chicago area is about the same [as it was] 10 years ago.” Washington said. “From our perspective, we should build on that instead of taking steps to eliminate the progress we’ve worked on in the past several years.” 

Power utilities in 30 Illinois towns and other large cities like Austin, Texas; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Omaha, Neb. are already under municipal control. “One in seven customers in the U.S. is served by municipal utilities,” LaSpata said.

Dave Kolata, executive director of the consumer advocacy group, Citizens Utility Board, said there’s no obvious answer just yet as to whether customers (and the environment) will benefit more from a private or public utility. 

On the one hand, municipalization could help the city move more aggressively toward 100 percent renewable energy goals, though the city would also have to essentially buy back the power delivery infrastructure from ComEd, which could be very expensive. On the other hand, he noted investor-owned utilities like ComEd are a “mixed bag,” too. 

Chicago has until Dec. 31, 2020, before its current agreement with ComEd expires. Under the current franchise agreement, the city has to give a year’s notice if it wishes to take over the utility. Kolata added that the city has the option to simply extend the existing franchise agreement a bit longer and give itself more time to revisit municipalization in the near term. 

What you can do

  • Request Environmental Protection and Energy Committee Chair Ald. George Cardenas (12th) conduct public hearings on ComEd’s franchise agreement by emailing or calling 773.523.8250. Tweet to him at @aldcardenas. 

  • Ask Cardenas to call a vote on the feasibility study legislation at the committee’s September meeting.

  • LaSpata said proponents of a municipalized power provider can sign up for information and outreach opportunities at the DSA-backed “Democratize ComEd” portal.

What’s next

ComEd confirmed to City Bureau the company submitted a response to the city with its proposed terms by the June 15 deadline, but declined to provide additional details on what they were offering or what the city was requesting. The company has been thin on answers about rates, renewable energy information and more, according to a June Documenters report on the committee’s meeting.  

The Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy is planning to meet in September following the City Council’s summer recess, though no date has been posted. 

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