Gazette Article by Helen Weaver
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2011
While many of our friends and neighbors in Northfield, Glencoe, and Wilmette were clearing out their freezers and running long extension cords through their neighbors’ yards for days after this summer’s destructive storms in June and July, no one in Winnetka went more than 12 hours without power. Why? Because Winnetkans are not customers of Commonwealth Edison. For more than 100 years, Winnetka has been supplying its own power, an uncommon endeavor in this part of the world.
Winnetka’s early years were marked by a number of progressive innovations including the establishment of the first municipal power plant on the North Shore. In the mid-1890s, according to Lora Dickinson’s The Story of Winnetka, “outside interests were appearing before the Village Council to supply water mains, electric lights, and gas.” But Henry Demarest Lloyd and other champions convinced the Council of the merits of municipal utility ownership. The water plant was built at the foot of Tower Road in 1893 and the electric plant followed in 1900. Little did they know that municipal ownership would be contested multiple times during the next 75 years.
Until 1909, Winnetka’s plant kept the street lamps glowing, and many residents installed electric lights in their own homes. In February 1909, 600 residents (of a total population of 3100) came to a meeting at Village Hall for a contentious debate over the possible sale of the plant to the North Shore Electric Company, a division of the newly formed Commonwealth Edison Company. Between 1902 and 1909 North Shore Electric had bought and consolidated more than 20 suburban municipal power plants including those of Evanston, Wilmette, Glencoe and Highland Park. A Chicago Tribune article reported that “more than one speaker was interrupted, while charges and countercharges were hurled from the platform.” Finally, after “vigorous speeches” by representatives of both sides of the issue, a vote was taken and the plant was retained. The headline read, “Clings to Lighting Plant—Winnetka Refuses to Turn It Over to North Shore Company.”
Through the next several decades the plant was enlarged and modified to keep up with increasing demand and changing technology. For the most part, the Village paid for this expansion with surplus earnings from the plant. During the Depression, Winnetka was one of few Cook County communities able to pay its municipal employees and keep its treasury at a surplus. According to a 1933 Tribune article, Village Manager H.L. Woolhiser “ascribes its (Winnetka’s) solvency in part to its light plant.”
By the middle 1950s, the demand for electricity was growing faster than the plant’s capacity. Some Village Council members felt that Winnetka should accept an offer the Commonwealth Edison Company made to buy the plant in 1956. After an informal postcard poll taken in early 1957 showed a slight majority in favor of the deal, a group that called themselves the Save Our Power Plant committee filed suit to prevent the Village from going forward with the sale. As they did almost 50 years earlier, the residents of Winnetka came out in large numbers to debate the issue. More than 800 people filled the Skokie School auditorium as committee members from both sides presented their views. Much of the controversy focused on the price offered by Commonwealth Edison. Those in opposition felt that the sale price was too low. After months of legal wrangling, the Village agreed to bring the issue to a referendum vote. A Winnetka Talk commentary published in 1976 reported that “letters pro and con deluged the Talk and citizens bought full-page advertisements to advance the two sides of the issue….opponents of the sale were dubbed socialists and other highly-charged rhetoric filled the air.”
On November 5, 1957, the citizens of Winnetka voted 2997 to 1708 to keep ownership of the electric plant. A $1.2 million addition was completed in 1960, increasing capacity about 70%, and allowing the plant to meet the electric needs of the town for the next ten years. But by the early 1970s the Village needed to “tie-in” to the Commonwealth Edison system in order to buy enough power to cover peak loads. In addition, new federal pollution control regulations created a need for expensive upgrades to the coal burning boilers at the plant. The option to sell the plant to Commonwealth Edison was raised once again.
From 1973 to 1976 the Village Council juggled engineering consultant reports; petitions from a reincarnated Save Our Power Plant; and demands to sell it by a group called Winnetkans Interested in Protecting Our Environment (WIPE) as well as other residents who felt the required upgrades would be too expensive.
Finally, the Council opted not to pursue a sale. Instead, the Village purchased two new diesel generators to provide “quick-start” capability and to allow for emergency back-up power for the water facility and public safety in emergency power outages. The original coal boilers were converted to natural gas in 1990. According to the current Director of Water and Electric, Brian Keys, the equipment still produces the same power that it did when first installed in the plant .
In 1991 Winnetka joined the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA), a 33-member power-buying consortium that negotiates wholesale electric rates for member utilities. Since then, all of Winnetka’s power has been supplied by the IMEA via ComEd wires to a substation in Northfield. From there, Winnetka distributes power to residents through lines owned and maintained by the Village. As part of the contract, Winnetka receives $1.4 million in power credits from IMEA in exchange for dispatching electricity into the system when demand is high. Today the power plant operates only to exercise the equipment and keep the operators proficient, but the plant is always ready to generate power in emergencies. Due to Y2K concerns, on December 31, 1999, the plant provided electricity to Winnetka residents for 24 hours.
Because Winnetka owns and maintains its distribution system (cables, lines and poles), when storms and tree branches knock out power, Village employees are on hand to make quick repairs. When the workload is large—as in the days following last summer’s storms—crews from IMEA utilities help Winnetka workers through a mutual aid agreement. Similarly, Winnetka linemen assisted in Springfield during the winter of 2007 when Southern Illinois experienced a brutal ice storm.
Although former Village Manager Robert Buechner was quoted in a 1989 North Shore Magazine article as saying, “We will always have underlying controversy about the utility,” the issue has been dormant for the last twenty years. Reliable service, backup power security, and relatively reasonable rates have engendered gratitude that our Village forefathers fought to keep the first—and now the only—municipal power plant on the North Shore.