boston globe

A shocking power play
By Adrian Walker Globe Columnist / April 11, 2008

From time to time, many NStar customers have problems with the power going out. That won't be an issue anymore to people on Old Barn Road in Duxbury. These people have the good fortune to be neighbors of Timothy Manning, the company's vice president of human resources.

Fed up with persistent power failures at his home, Manning had two high voltage switches installed in July - one on either side of his house. The equipment virtually guarantees that his power will never be lost. A few lucky neighbors are similarly insulated from power troubles.

An internal memo addressed to Manning lays it all out. "This installation means that no matter where the problem is in the future . . . Manning's house would not lose power," it states. "This allows NSTAR to switch around the problem so Manning's house keeps its electrical service. As far as we can tell this only affects very few houses other than Mr. Manning, [sic] so they can't say it is a system upgrade."

Who paid for Timothy Manning's upgraded service? NStar's generous ratepayers. The document estimates the cost at $35,000.

Manning declined to talk about his electricity yesterday, opting to hide behind his public relations people. NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen described the work as "routine." Allen said Manning's neighborhood had suffered six power failures in the space of a year.

"This was an area we had identified as a problem area," Allen said.

And how was this problem identified?

"Often, employees report back on their experience with the company," Allen said. "He provided information and we fixed it. This is a standard response to a troubled circuit."

No, it's a standard response to a ticked-off honcho.

Allen insisted that the $35,000 cost estimate was far overblown. She said the work cost $19,000, roughly $1,000 under budget. She added that the improved equipment would affect 463 households, not just a handful. Allen added that the installation did not guarantee that there would never be a power failure at Manning's house, though she did concede that if one happened, power would be restored more quickly.

An NStar employee who declined to be identified because he would like to keep his job viewed the installation differently. He told me yesterday that installing two new switches so close together is unusual. Normally, he said, they are miles apart. The only reason for the redundancy, he said, is to provide backup in case of a power failure.

"The only reason to put two switches three or four poles apart is so the little area in between will never lose power," he said. "It doubled the cost."

There are at least two disturbing aspects to this "routine service call." First, this level of service is hardly available to the general public. What's worse - much worse - is that ratepayers footed the bill for the work, a fact the company does not dispute.

NStar has never been known for its efficient and thorough service. This is, after all, the utility that managed to electrocute a dog in 2004. No, NStar is far better known as the company that pays its top executives jaw-dropping sums of money. It is also widely assumed to be for sale, a development that won't break many hearts around town.

But it is a public utility, a phrase that carries certain connotations - among them the notion that members of the public will be treated roughly the same.

NStar, in fact, ranks among the most unpopular utilities in America. It was ranked 48th out of 49 public utilities for customer service in a 2006 survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

Perhaps they just didn't survey the right people. On one block of Duxbury, the service is outstanding.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at