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Empowering concept

November 05, 2011

A Cape-based electric utility company may be nothing more than a fantasy at this point, but the prospect of municipal ownership of our electricity is more than a little appealing.

The state Legislature is considering a bill that would simplify the process to create municipal lighting companies (also known as munis). There are 41 munis in Massachusetts, and the slow response to damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene has sparked renewed interest in expanding their ranks. Last weekend's power outages that extended into the week may add even more fuel to that discussion.

Some have suggested that the Cape is geographically perfect in terms of being a muni; the canal creates a natural barrier that delineates us from the rest of the state, allowing us to be a grid unto ourselves. Theoretically, we could still leave those wires that cross the canal in place so that, in the event of an emergency, we would still be able to tap into NStar.

There are a lot of potential positives when it comes to a muni. The fact that it would be owned by a local entity means that it would likely be more responsive to the concerns of Cape residents. At the same time, some experts have argued that because it is operated by a municipal entity, the company would not be beholden to stockholders, and that the absence of a profit motive could mean lower rates for consumers.

Local control might also make it easier to argue for underground power lines, a move that larger electric companies have historically resisted due to, among other things, a low return on investment. If we are the ones in charge, we could decide whether avoiding downed power lines every time the wind blows is worth the cost of burying those lines.

Perhaps local ownership would also prompt more interest in developing renewable energy sources across the Cape, such as wind and solar power. When the savings are passed along directly to the consumer, the incentive to go green could grow exponentially.

Obviously, a muni would not be a panacea for all of the Cape's electric woes. Market forces and fuel costs mean that energy would likely remain expensive. And if even one town decided not to participate, it could make the plan unfeasible in terms of practicality.

Further, sometimes a great idea can be tempered by the not-so-insignificant details that come along with a project of this magnitude. The reality of owning and maintaining our own power could be extremely complex.

NStar, hardly an unbiased entity, has also raised a few financial specters as the muni debate continues. A spokesman for the utility company noted that NStar generates a lot of tax revenue for the communities in which it is based. He also warned that forming a muni does not and cannot guarantee a lower electrical rate.

But these potential drawbacks should not deter lawmakers from moving forward. Even under the best of circumstances, any new muni is likely a decade away, and we suspect that there would be substantial discussion before anyone would throw the switch. But just as the buy local food movement has reminded us that self-reliance can have a host of benefits, so too may the empowering concept of self-powering.