boston globe

The power of municipal power GLOBE EDITORIAL December 29, 2008

THE ACHINGLY slow response to the ice storm that knocked out power to parts of Central Massachusetts for nearly two weeks demands an aggressive investigation by the state Department of Public Utilities. A thorough probe is needed to shed some light on why Unitil, the investor-owned utility that serves hard-hit Fitchburg and nearby areas, performed worse than some of the area's "munis" - small, municipally owned electric companies.

The ice storm on Dec. 11 and 12 knocked out power to nearly every one of the 3,200 customers of the West Boylston Municipal Light Plant. Eight days later, power was restored to 99 percent of customers, according to plant manager Brad White. While that might seem like cold comfort to many residents in West Boylston, it would take another week for Unitil to restore power to some of its customers in the Fitchburg area.

The severity of the ice storm, which was followed a week later by heavy snowfall, posed a terrible challenge for utility crews who struggled with downed trees and live wires. But leaving customers in the dark for nearly two weeks seems inexcusable in an area known for hostile weather conditions. Unitil, which serves about 28,000 customers in the area, deservedly bears the brunt of the public's anger and warrants the most intensive examination. But the response by municipal departments in hard-hit Princeton and Holden also need close scrutiny. Other munis in affected areas include Groton, Littleton, and Ashburnham, and those towns received generally positive reviews.

Roughly 326,000 customers lost power during the storm. But how quickly utility companies were able to respond often depended on actions taken weeks and months before the storm. Municipal light companies are especially aggressive about trimming trees, according to Wayne Snow, president of the Municipal Electric Association of Massachusetts, the umbrella group for the state's 40 munis. Unitil crews, on the other hand, were often pinned down by fallen trees and branches. Another factor in the munis' favor might be a mutual aid system that quickly dispatched crews from power and light plants in towns that eluded the worst of the storm. Investor-owned utilities had to wait for out-of-state crews to arrive.

If many munis outperformed the larger utility companies, it should give a prod to the Legislature to make room for additional public-owned power and light companies. So far, the electric utility lobby has blocked such attempts. But some towns, including Lexington, are looking seriously at buying poles and wires from investor-owned utilities and branching out on their own.

The anger over the ice storm power outages will take a long time to melt. Lawmakers can use some of that time by clearing the pathway for more munis.