The lights go on in Rochelle

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There are many things we take for granted; turn the tap and water comes out, flip the switch and the lights come on, call for help and the police or fire departments are on the way. What few consider is that all of these, and more city services, are directly impacted by the city’s utility department. We all are aware that Rochelle Municipal Utilities covers many varied services ranging through water, water reclamation, fiber optics, and electricity. By far the largest producer of income for the community is the electric department. Let’s take a look at the electric department and all of the benefits that have been bestowed on the community by a flip of the switch.

The Rochelle Electric Light Company was incorporated through the Secretary of State in 1884. Surprisingly it was not the city, but a group of local businessmen, who formed the company. M.D. Hathaway, H.O. Perry, I.N. Perry, and W.H. Holcomb believed that they could generate electricity and provide lighting for the business district. The City of Rochelle at the time had a population of fewer than 2,000 and a business district that covered fewer than six city blocks. Rochelle Electric Light Company struggled and the lights went out as fast as they had come on.

By 1890 there was a push to bring electricity to the community. A petition, signed by 300 voters, was submitted to the city requesting a study on the feasibility of electrical power to light homes, streets and businesses. The 1893 mayoral election featured Angus Bain and Edward Gardner. Both candidates favored bringing electrical services to Rochelle but Edward Gardner promised to bring services before the end of the year. When the votes were tallied Edward Gardner had 208 votes and Angus Bain received 182 votes. The people had spoken. 

In only three months the Consolidated Engineering Company of St. Louis had installed the complete system. “On Tuesday (the electric lights) shown in all their splendor. 38 arc lamps were kept burning until nearly morning and our city was as light as day during the entire night,” stated the Rochelle Herald. One of the first city ordinances passed by the city related to the electric department was the 1893 ordinance prohibiting persons hitching their horses to any light pole within the city. 

By 1895 the number of lights had expanded greatly. From the initial 38 lamps the city was now providing power for 1,500 lights, including businesses and churches. It was 1896 before the first electrical lights illuminated the private residence of Thomas Southworth. To stimulate growth the utility department even sold electric appliances. When the demand was sufficient, hardware stores began selling electric appliances and in 1931 the city discontinued the service. Growth was so good and income exceeded expectations to the point where the city waved collection of utility bills for the month of December in 1942, giving 2,000 customers a surprise Christmas present. 

The electrical demand grew with the community and by 1907 the demand had outgrown the city’s ability to generate. A new power plant was required and constructed between Seventh Street and Ninth Street on Second Avenue. As demand increased, the utilities added larger engines and matched the growth. By 1961, a coal-burning power plant was constructed on the south side of town, once again staying ahead of the community’s base electrical needs. The south side power plant also provided steam for Swift Company and was commonly referred to as “The Steam Plant”. The power plant on Second Avenue housed several diesel-powered engines and became known as the “Diesel Plant”. At this point the Steam Plant provided the base electrical load and the Diesel Plant provided any excess power demand.

A portion of the income from the electric utility is diverted to the city’s general fund. This fund supports all other city services. When you pay your utility bill you help to plow the snow, staff an ambulance, ensure police response, and so much more. The elected officials realized that without the utilities every city service could be severely impaired. This understanding guided not only the elected officials but also the voters to support the electrical utility. 

There were challenges. In 1928 the city asked the community to weigh-in on expansion to the electric utility. Should the city sell the utility to Commonwealth Edison or invest $650,000 for expansion? The local voters rallied with a three-to-one vote in favor of expansion. Once again in 1959, the citizens were asked to support expansion of the electrical utility. Again, the public decided that the benefits far exceeded the costs of providing electrical services. The vote was 10,01 to expand to 764 to sell. The final attempt to buy out the utility was in 1968. The voter was committed to ownership and by a vote of 1,229 to 957 chose to expand the utility rather than sell. 

From 1873 through 1996 the City of Rochelle made a commitment to being a self-sufficient electrical utility. In 1996 the city was once again faced with a decision, do we spend monies on our own utility or do we move away from local determination? In 2003 the Steam Plant was retired and the city council opted to not replace the plant. For the first time since 1893 the city could not produce the basic level of electricity needed to power the community. Instead of upgrading current plants or building our own, the city decided to invest in a power plant to be built in southern Illinois. 

The Prairie State Energy Campus, in Marissa, Illinois began construction in 2007 and went online in 2012. The City of Rochelle invested over $200 million in the power plant through the Northern Illinois Power Agency, the joint action agency jointly owned and run cooperatively with the communities of Geneva and Batavia.

Since 2007 the city has been paying $8 million annually in debt service payments toward the plant. Currently, the plant is scheduled to reduce its load from 1,600 megawatts to 800 megawatts by 2038.  Our power purchase and debt obligation run through 2042.  Under the current CEJA (Climate Equity Jobs Act) rules (which could change), the plant is scheduled to be fully closed in 2045.

Will the city return to electrical production, or will it continue to pay others for the service? How will the city afford to provide services without the current $2.5 million that the utility provides to the general fund?  What will happen to our service territory’s electrical rates when the city must purchase power lost due to the Prairie State closure? How will base load generation in the state be supported? Will there be micro nuclear options or other renewable options available that are cost effective? Only time will tell.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.