Pasted Graphic

City may wield its power

By Chris Helms/ Chronicle Staff
Thursday, October 20, 2005

The city of Cambridge might be getting into the power business.

As residents complain about outages across the city, city councilors have ordered the city manager to look into taking over from NSTAR.

"I, for one, have had enough," said City Councilor Henrietta Davis. "Week after week, people call us." She said a city-owned power company would be more responsive to residents because it would not face the pressure to turn a profit.

Davis and City Councilor Denise Simmons co-sponsored a motion to have the city manager look into the possibility. It passed unanimously.

Power transmission is complicated, more so than in the days when one company would generate and transmit the power to homes and businesses, said City Manager Bob Healy.

"It's an extremely complex area," he said. It might cost up to $500,000 just to study whether the idea could work in Cambridge.

Statewide, 41 cities and towns have so-called "munis" or municipal electric companies.

Residents in those communities pay an average of 24 percent less than residents who get their electricity from NSTAR, according the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.

But no municipality has formed a new "muni" since 1926. In part that's because there's no guarantee that NSTAR would have to sell its wires, poles and substations, even after a city does the costly study to which Healy referred. There's legislation on Beacon Hill to clarify that key point.

Noting that Belmont has its own "muni," Davis said deregulation allows cities to get back into the power transmission business. "It's not an unusual solution," she said.

Mayor Michael Sullivan said residents should get better service for their utility dollars.

"Cambridge is a cash cow to NSTAR. They take a hell of a lot of money out of Cambridge," said Sullivan.

City Councilor Brian Murphy said electricity deregulation, touted as a boon to consumers who would profit from open competition, hasn't worked out that way.

"The deregulation bill was a disaster," said Murphy. "That legislation was a lot of promises and not a lot of delivery."

Cambridge already owns the city's streetlights, which it bought from NSTAR after widespread frustration over NSTAR's slow response to streetlight outages.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Contact Chris Helms at