Discontent often is a prerequisite to progress. Such may be the case with a plan for new power lines that would relieve transmission congestion through northern Illinois and, ComEd officials say, save electricity customers $500 million over 15 years.
State regulators don't see the same cost benefits, however, and are balking. ComEd needs their approval for the $250 million Grand Prairie Gateway project, which would extend power lines for 60 miles between substations in Byron and Wayne, crossing Kane, DuPage, DeKalb and Ogle counties. Illinois Commerce Commission officials' own calculations lead them to believe the project's benefits will not bring the savings envisioned.
So the matter seemingly centers on whether ComEd's or the ICC's cost analysis is correct. But a broader view is needed. Illinois is one link in an energy chain spanning from coast to coast, and when congestion from overburdened transmission lines occurs, the cost of delivering power increases. Northern Illinois is one problem area that has been identified by a federally appointed regional transmission organization that oversees electricity needs.
That this improvement is needed is difficult to dispute. With the current infrastructure and the public's insatiability for electric power, ComEd will be unable to keep electricity flowing efficiently. This in turn prevents the utility from bringing in cheaper energy from the less-populated West, resulting in higher costs for local customers.
The ICC's financial concerns took ComEd by surprise, but perhaps they shouldn't have. The job of the ICC is to protect the interests of both consumers and service providers while ensuring reliable and safe public utility services at least cost. Its hesitancy in this case -- along with the public hearings set for next month -- will invite more scrutiny and more solid answers.
ComEd had expected that the ICC instead would focus on problems with the routing of the lines that have prompted an outcry by Elgin-area residents and other property owners along the path. Homeowners are worried about a potential decline in quality of life and property values, and hundreds have attended ComEd's local meetings in recent months. It's a separate challenge, but a vital part of the mix.
The ICC needs to analyze the figures with great care. The electricity congestion problem is a first for Illinois. As with any new challenge, tension should be expected and open-mindedness is required.
ComEd also must address residents' concerns -- at least considering, for example, whether to relocate the route in certain areas or, in extreme cases, presenting options for dealing with the complications and burdensome costs of burying the high-voltage cables. Residents must study the facts about the effects of power lines on health and safety. Kane County officials are seeking to preserve their interests as well.
Some positive steps already are being taken. A county committee has agreed to relocate a section of the power line path away from backyards in South Elgin after the village worked closely with ComEd. More of this collaboration is needed. Given the project's complexity, a willingness to listen and compromise will help ensure the progress that is needed.