Blackouts, surges fixed by Belmont Light Dept. but system running at capacity

By Christian Schiavone/
GateHouse News Service
Jul 16, 2010

Belmont, Mass. — The Belmont Municipal Light Department has taken steps to prevent blackouts and power surges but a permanent fix won’t come without a complete overhaul of the system to add more capacity, according to CEO Tim Richardson.

Customers complained of problems with service including outages lasting up to two and a half hours and surges that damaged or destroyed computers and televisions last spring. Since then, the department has installed new transformers and updated equipment, which appears to have solved those problems for now, said Richardson.

“We haven’t seen the same damage or complaints we were seeing earlier,” said Richardson. “I think we’re on top of this.”

Richardson said older transformers failed to recognize changes in the voltage running through the lines, either causing lights to dim unexpectedly or surges that damaged electronics plugged into outlets.

He said the department has put in new relays and transformers in the areas that were most affected. Since the equipment was updated, there was another fault in the system but the new safeguards prevented it from affecting the department’s customers.

Richardson said the department is setting up a claims process that will allow customers to seek some reimbursement for electronics that were damaged by surges through the department’s insurance company. That marks a change from the department’s original stance that it wasn’t liable for damage to customer’s property.

“Our first response when we looked at this was that we’re a small utility but we didn’t feel like that was the right stance to take with our customers,” he said.

He said the department has collected data about when and where the surges occurred and given that information to the insurance company.

The department has also upgraded equipment to prevent blackouts, including installing new cables and relays.

There were five outages since Jan. 1, 2010, that affected at least 300 customers, according to the department. The first, which lasted for about an hour and 15 minutes, occurred on March 31 and the last took place on May 31 and lasted for two and a half hours.

In one instance, an older cable failed and then a backup cable failed to kick in.

Richardson said much of the cable that supplies customer’s electricity is between 40 and 60 years old and is nearing the end of its useful life.

But those problems are small compared to the overall challenge of overhauling the entire system, which has reached its full capacity. With temperatures soaring and air conditioning units on high, the department has sent out warnings urging residents to try and limit their electricity use during late afternoon and early evening.

“We have reached our firm capacity and we are asking customers to conserve electricity if they can,” said Jennifer Santoro, the department’s energy sources and communications coordinator, on July 6 when the temperature was approaching 100 degrees.

Running at full capacity puts the department at risk for prolonged outages, according to Richardson.

Richardson said the department has two options to increase capacity: pay NSTAR to upgrade the system or the preferred option of installing higher capacity lines running through a new substation. That plan is currently on hold while a site selection committee tries to come up with a second attempt to find a site for the new substation that Town Meeting will support.