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Outages spark outrage
By Erin Smith/ Chronicle Staff Thursday, July 27, 2006

Frustrated Area Four residents are demanding that the city to take over the local electricity company after NSTAR left their neighborhood in the dark several times in the past week.

The neighborhood has been plagued by unexplained power outages for years.

"I believe NSTAR will not pay the money to fix the outages," said David Scondras, coordinator for the Area Four Coalition, at the neighborhood group’s recent meeting. "If we can’t get NSTAR to fix it, we should find another game."

Scondras said that the neighborhood unfairly bears the brunt of blackouts and likened NSTAR’s slow to response to discrimination because many Area Four residents are minorities and earn lower incomes than other parts of Cambridge.

"Every year we have about 10 or 20 outages," said Ruth Nelson, an Area Four resident.

Whenever the power is out in Nelson’s building, the fire alarm sounds, which forces her to evacuate her home. Walking up and down the stairs during the alarms is especially hard because she is disabled, Nelson told NSTAR officials.

"That is my anger, especially at 3 o’clock in the morning. Why does it happen all the time?" said Nelson.

NSTAR officials have said that power outages could persist for at least the next five years in Area Four as crews work to update the electrical system in the city. Area Four is bordered by Mass. Ave., Prospect Street, Hampshire Street and the railroad tracks near MIT.

"There’s so much work to be done. It will extend through 2010," said Bill Zamparelli, a community relations representative for NSTAR.

In light of the recent blackouts, City Councilor Denise Simmons has vowed to set up a citizen task force to explore the option of a city-run electric company.

This isn’t the first time that city councilors and residents have pushed for Cambridge to control its own electricity.

In October 2005, City councilors Henrietta Davis and Simmons ordered City Manager Bob Healy to look into taking over electrical services from NSTAR. Last January, Healy issued a report recommending against Cambridge starting its own electric company, citing that the move would be too expensive.

The report estimated that it would cost the city between $115 million and $170 million to acquire its own electric company. In addition to the purchase price, city-hired consultants Camp Dresser McKee estimated that Cambridge could expect a total investment of $200 million to $250 million over the first three years, and $35 million and $40 million per year after that for maintenance.

Some city councilors and municipal electricity advocates questioned the findings of the report, which was compiled from data collected through the Department of Transportation and Energy.
Recent outages

July 17, 7:45 to 11:45 p.m. A transformer fails and leaves 6,952 homes in Area Four and bordering areas without power.

July 18, 1:51 p.m. An overloaded circuit breaks and leaves 2,172 homes without power 2:14 p.m. NSTAR restores power for 1,492 homes 3:30 p.m. NSTAR restores power for 600 homes 4:30 p.m. NSTAR restores power to the remaining 80 homes 9:30 p.m. An automated phone message from NSTAR goes out to 6,952 homes to let residents know that there will be a series of power outages lasting up to five minutes from midnight to 3 a.m. while crews replace failed circuits.
History of the electricity debate

February 2005 Cambridge purchases every city streetlight from NSTAR for $1.6 million after frustration over NSTAR’s slow response to streetlight outages. Residents complained that NSTAR crews sometimes took more than a year to repair streetlights.

October 2005 City councilors Henrietta Davis and Denise Simmons ordered the city manager to look into the city taking over electrical services from NSTAR, arguing that a city-owned power company would be more responsive to residents because it would not face the pressure to turn a profit. NSTAR rates were too high and their service too slow. The motion passed unanimously.

January 2006 City Manager Bob Healy releases a report from a city consultant and recommends against Cambridge starting its own electric company, citing that the move would be too expensive. It would cost Cambridge between $115 million and $170 million to acquire its own electric company, according to the report, which was criticized by some city councilors and municipal electricity advocates.

July 2006 City Councilor Denise Simmons vows to form a citizen task force to research the option of the city running its own electric company.
What is a ’muni?’

NSTAR provides Cambridge residents with electricity. Nearby in Belmont, however, the town runs its own electric company, the Belmont Municipal Light Department. Statewide, 41 cities and towns have so-called "munis" or municipal electric companies. Muni customers typically pay 24 percent less for electricity, according to Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.

The cost of 500 kilowatt hours in Cambridge is about $98. The same amount of electricity would currently cost about $60 in Belmont.

Muni proponents say city oversight will increase accountability for blackouts.

"If I don’t do a good job, it’s very easy to get rid of me. I’m also easy to get a hold of. You can call me up," Ron Lunt, manager and CEO of Belmont Municipal Light Department, told the Area Four Coalition.

No municipality has formed a new muni since 1926, according to MAMEC. It’s difficult to form a muni because there’s no guarantee that NSTAR would have to sell its wires, poles and substations to the city. There was a bill in the state House of Representative that would make the creation of munis easier by mandating sales once a city and utility company agree on how much the electric equipment is worth. The bill is currently stalled and has been assigned to a committee for study.

Erin Smith can be reached at