HERRIN — The city council recently tabled action concerning a referendum for voters to decide if the city should be granted the right to choose an electric supplier for residents, which may seem unusual in light of what other communities are doing.
Du Quoin and Pinckneyville answered yes when voters went to the polls March 20.
Johnston City council members voted yes during a February meeting to decide if the referendum question would be included on the November ballot. Benton has also included the question on its November ballot.
“I don’t know for sure. The city of Herrin has been cautious about this. We can sit back and wait and see. If we want to come in here with this option, we’ve got any time of the year to do so,” said Herrin city alderman Ernie Gwaltney, summing up the council’s consensus on the referendum.
The council has been given analysis of the aggregation option from one of its own residents, Associate Professor Carl Spezia of the SIU College of Engineering, whose field of study is electrical engineering technology. He also worked as a power systems engineer for Illinois Power and Southern Illinois Power Cooperative for eight years.
“Nobody on the council had any clue,” Spezia said about attending a city council meeting by chance earlier this summer and seeing a presentation from one of the independent brokers, or power suppliers, attempting to sell the idea for a referendum. “My issue is why municipalities are doing this for independent companies.”
Spezia said if a referendum was approved by voters and the city contracts with a broker or supplier to purchase electricity, it’s a locked-down situation that almost circumvents the option handed down by the Illinois Power Agency years ago to allow customers to choose their own supplier.
But brokers and suppliers like Stephen Thayer, president of Southern Illinois Municipal Electric Co., have always included within their presentations that customers ultimately have the final say on their electric supplier even with a yes vote on the referendum. Ameren notifies customers who have 90 days to stay with or opt out of the program.
The trouble is, customers appear to be sitting in the dark as to the option, Gwaltney said. He said since the option has come before the council this spring, not one of his constituents in Ward I has contacted him about it.
“To me personally, I would not go for it,” Gwaltney said, saying he remains skeptical about electric bill cost savings of up to 25 to 28 percent being touted in presentations to the council. “If 20 people in my ward call me up, however, and voice their approval for the referendum, then I would vote for it.”
If there is one thing Spezia said he hopes he has gotten through to the council from information he has presented them, is the complexity of the power market. Electricity as a commodity is subject to a volatile marketplace. It is constantly fluid. It can’t be stored, he said.
“It’s a very complex issue,” Spezia said, noting the city might consider a request for proposal from suppliers and brokers rather than subjecting themselves to one-on-one sales presentations. “Does the city want to get into the power business? I’d like to see the council continuing to direct its efforts on improving streets and water.”
If the city council is committed to helping customers lower their electricity bills, he suggests promoting energy conservation and improved structure insulation programs.
“Thirty percent of household energy is heating and cooling. Let the marketplace take care of itself,” Spezia said.