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updated: 3/13/2013 10:51 PM

Batavia hopefuls discuss power plant investment

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How Batavia officials treat potential businesses, and what to do about the increasing costs of electricity, fueled discussion Wednesday night at a forum for candidates for alderman.

It was put on by the Batavia Chamber of Commerce, which solicited the questions from its members.

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The electricity question, about how Batavia should deal with excess supply, touched a nerve for 5th Ward Alderman Eldon Frydendall, the chairman of the public utilities committee and the city's representative to the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency.

The Prairie State coal-fired generation plant in which the city invested came online last year. The city is required to purchase a certain amount of electricity from it, but does not currently need all of that. The city is paying more for the electricity than it could otherwise buy it on the market, and it is losing money when it sells the excess power, according to a February memo from public works director Gary Holm.

Fifth Ward Alderman Eldon Frydendall and 4th Ward Alderman Jim Volk stood by their votes in the early 2000s to invest in Prairie State. "Prairie State is a long-term investment for us," Volk said; it guaranteed stable rates for 30 years.

"Our electrical utility is probably the biggest (economic) incentive we have" to attract businesses, said Frydendall. "It is a great asset, even though it has its problems right now."

His challenger, Steve Vasilion, had said a few minutes earlier that the city should "try to find a way to get out of this mess," including supporting investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich in to the project.

"I'm very insulted about the things that are being said about the present city council members," Frydendall said when it was his turn, and that he wished more of the candidates would have attended recent utilities committee meetings where the matter was discussed.

Volk and 3rd Ward Alderman Kyle Hohmann noted the utility has a high service reliability rate, which businesses like, compared to ComEd. It was a factor in getting synthetic sapphire-maker Rubicon Technologies to move to Batavia.

Sixth Ward candidate Nick Cerone pointed out that rates will rise as the city is depleting the $2 million designated to stabilize rates for its customers, and that the federal budget sequestration will affect reimbursements on the interest paid on Build America bonds used for the project.

One of his competitors, Ron Rechenmacher, said getting more large industrial consumers of electricity would help, if the city structures deals so that residential consumers don't end up bearing a disproportionate share of the utility's costs.

Fourth Ward candidate Jamie Saam said she wants more accountability and information on the project, from the plant to the power agency, the agency to the city council, and the council to residents.

And 6th Ward Alderman Bob Liva, who was elected after the project was approved, said demand dropped below the forecast due to the recession, and that the price of natural gas is at an all-time low, driving electrical prices down. He believes other coal-fired plants will not be able to meet federal environmental regulations and have to shut down, reducing supply.

Drew McFadden, a candidate for 7th Ward, said the city needs contingency plans: "how can we either get out of our commitment or start thinking creatively to use the power we are going to have to have."

Ward 1 candidate Michael O'Brien, who is unopposed, was out of town, and the other Ward 7 candidates -- Patrick Purcell and Steve Holland -- were not there.

A video of the forum will be broadcast on BATV public-access cable channel 17.

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