boston globe

Power restored for all customers in the Back Bay

1,500 lack power; Pru reconnected; NStar besieged with questions

By Brian MacQuarrie and Brian R. Ballou |  GLOBE STAFF    
MARCH 15, 2012

Even as electricity flowed again Thursday to most power-starved pockets of the Back Bay, one of the city’s signature office towers remained dark for most of the day, and questions intensified about why NStar repeatedly changed its predictions for restoring power.

At one point, the utility insisted that nearly all 21,000 business and residential customers who lost power after a billowing transformer fire Tuesday had been reconnected. The one exception - and it was a big one - was the sprawling Prudential Center, which remained closed for much of the day and, in the process, disrupted the lives of about 8,000 workers.

Power was restored to the Prudential office tower at 11 Thursday night, while electricity had been restored earlier Thursday to some shops in the adjacent mall.

But that progress was almost clouded by a new loss of power to 1,500 customers, when a sudden surge in demand caused underground cables to fail Thursday afternoon and manhole covers to soar into the air on Huntington Avenue near the Colonnade Hotel. Those customers still without power late Thursday night were expected to have electricity restored some time Friday morning, NStar spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman said.

Dan Moulton, who lives in The Fenway and did not have power late Thursday night, said NStar should “have a little more common sense’’ when giving a timeline.

“I’d rather have them tell me it’s going to be 48 hours and be surprised in 36 hours,’’ he said. “It is irresponsible of them to come out and say everything is hunky-dory when it isn’t.’’

NStar chief executive Thomas May called the original outage, which upended Back Bay life for two days, the result of a catastrophic equipment failure that he does not expect to see again in his lifetime.

But state officials and Mayor Thomas M. Menino are demanding answers.

“In the wake of the transformer fire and subsequent power outages in the Back Bay, I have instructed the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to require NStar submit a full reporting of the incident,’’ said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state energy and environmental affairs secretary.

That report must include “damage assessment, restoration efforts, communication with customers, and a root cause analysis to ensure this type of event does not happen again,’’ Sullivan said.

In the past five years, there have been no reported outages stemming from the Scotia Street power substation that caught fire Tuesday night, according to Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Utilities.

Menino expressed frustration that NStar repeatedly pushed back predictions for when power would return. “They have given several dates when they told us power would be back on,’’ Menino said at an afternoon press conference.

On Thursday, NStar officials were predicting full power by 4 a.m., then 10 a.m., then noon.

Menino demanded that NStar reimburse restaurants for spoiled food, pay restaurant workers for lost wages, and cover overtime costs for police and other city employees. He urged the utility not to pass on the cost to customers by increasing electricity rates.

On West Newton Street, after NStar announced that power had returned, Michael Paldino said his home still did not have electricity. “It’s one thing if they’re trying as hard as they can, but to say the power is back on is completely unacceptable,’’ Paldino said. “It’s pretty clear; there is not a single light on in the whole neighborhood.’’

Across the Back Bay, many businesses reopened, and much of the neighborhood’s normal bustle returned, but major venues such as the Prudential Center and the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center remained without power for much of the day. Across the neighborhood, hulking generators provided electricity to large customers such as the Sheraton Boston Hotel, the Back Bay Hilton, and housing for the elderly.

On Thursday, an ongoing convention of 5,000 fitness and health professionals closed early at the Hynes; sidewalks and streets lay ripped open throughout the neighborhood; and 2,500 pounds of meat was removed from unpowered refrigerators at the Capital Grille on Boylston Street and donated to a zoo in Mendon.

May, the NStar chief, said the outage resulted from the failure of an underground connector that links a high-voltage transmission system to the Scotia Street substation, near the Prudential Center.

In his 35 years in the utility business, May said, “I have never seen such a connector that had a catastrophic failure. . . . I don’t expect to see another one of these again in my lifetime.’’

Restoring power involved bypassing the Scotia Street substation with electricity from the South Charles Street substation. In addition, 100 generators were being used to supply temporary power, and 1,000 utility workers were deployed.

“We have never done this before, jump a network into another network,’’ May said. “The switching that is involved in this is most complex.’’

May said he understands that the mayor and residents are frustrated by delays. “We are frustrated, too,’’ he said. “We wish this could have gone quicker.’’

The mayor urged NStar to open an office in the Back Bay so residents and business owners can file claims for spoiled food or lost wages. He asked the utility to give the city a comprehensive plan for permanently fixing the electrical grid and repairing the streets and sidewalks that have been torn up.

The loss of power altered the usually predictable rhythms of the neighborhood, its vendors, and its visitors. The use of generators caused a problem at the Snowden International School on Newbury Street, with school dismissed early Thursday because some students and staff found the fumes disturbing.

Lisa Troiano, the operations manager at Brookline Ice & Coal Co., said the blackout brought the company an unexpected boom. As restaurants lost power to walk-in coolers and freezers, she said, they called for dry ice to try to salvage their food.

“During a typical week this time of year, we might go through 7,000 pounds of dry ice, and I think we’ve gone through 50,000 pounds since Tuesday,’’ she said.

At the Prudential Center, customer service representative Nick Carton said the frequently changing forecasts on when power would return proved vexing. “It’s pretty frustrating, to tell you the truth,’’ Carton said.

Outside, lunch crowds packed many restaurants and retail outlets, and the red, green, yellow of the traffic lights along Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street signaled a return to normalcy.

“A lot of Back Bay is up and running,’’ said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “It was like a snowstorm without the snow. The sound of the Back Bay has changed. Now you hear the whirr of those generator trucks. They are everywhere.’’

On many streets, residents picked up coffee at their usual shops on the way to work. Their conversations turned from where to find a power outlet to college basketball and recent vacations.

“It’s kind of ironic, because you hear about power outages in rural areas because of the winter storms, but this winter we had none of that, and then the big outage is in the city,’’ said Selina Fernandez, 32, of Malden, on a midafternoon lunch break.

Boston police fanned out to keep an eye on the utility work and direct traffic, but their presence was less notable than on Wednesday, when they were needed at every intersection.

In the coming weeks, the Boston City Council plans to convene a public hearing to examine the city’s transformer stations and NStar’s other electrical infrastructure. “We’d like to find out how old the equipment is and how often it’s inspected,’’ said City Council President Stephen J. Murphy. “Because the question is, can this happen again?’’

Andrew Ryan and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Johanna Kaiser, Zachary T. Sampson, and Colin A. Young contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at, and Brian Ballou can be reached at