Perspective: NSTAR must explain why outages occur
By Patrick Mehr
GateHouse News Service
Posted Aug 27, 2009
Would a newspaper story on President Obama’s election quote a Democratic Party official saying “Barack Obama won because John McCain lost?” Would a story on house prices include a real estate analyst commenting “home prices are down since 2007 because they have dropped?” Of course not.
Yet stories about NSTAR’s power outages routinely include such “explanations” that in fact explain nothing at all: we keep reading quotes from NSTAR spokespersons like “a mechanical failure occurred,” or “a piece of equipment failed” or “a faulty wire caused the problem.”
Most of Needham’s downtown businesses and many homes suffered two separate power outages in one week this month, each time from problems at the same manhole, yet an NSTAR spokeswoman could only tell the local newspaper “the hot weather caused an underground cable failure,” which explains nothing.
Unless they are damaged by an unrelated nearby accident, like a gas explosion, underground power cables don’t just “fail.” Cables, wires or equipment fail because they are too old, have been improperly maintained, or are subject to an electric load higher than they were designed to carry — in which case NSTAR should have increased their capacity before they failed. A local newspaper’s readers — who are also NSTAR’s electric ratepayers — deserve to know the real cause of power outages.
After two power outages lasting several hours affected thousands of businesses and homes in Provincetown this month, NSTAR’s spokeswoman spoke of “a mechanical failure in the wire that caused it to fall.”
After 8,000 Plymouth customers briefly lost power this month, an NSTAR spokesman told a radio station “a substation which distributes power to the area suffered an equipment malfunction.”
When a fire in a Cambridge manhole caused an evacuation of Lesley University in April, an NSTAR spokesman told the Boston Globe “an underground cable failed.”
In July 2008, after a teenager with cerebral palsy died during a power outage, an NSTAR spokeswoman told the Boston Globe, “the outage lasted two hours and affected 2,200 homes in East Boston. A failed power cable was apparently to blame” without explaining why the cable failed.
After a fire on a utility pole in Woburn left 1,100 customers without power in January 2008, an NSTAR spokeswoman called “a faulty wire” the source of the fire.
When about 1,300 customers in Chatham’s eastern side and downtown business district lost power for most of the day in March 2008, an NSTAR spokesman attributed the outage to “equipment failure” in a transformer at a nearby substation.
In Cambridge, two manholes exploded in June 2008, leaving 500 customers without power for the night; according to an NSTAR spokeswoman, the explosion was due to a “cable fault.” A year earlier, a manhole explosion which had left 2,000 residents without power was attributed to “an equipment malfunction below the roadway, a piece of equipment located at the joint of two underground carrier lines failed,” according to an NSTAR spokesman.
In Arlington, an NSTAR community relations representative called a June 2008 outage that drew ire from many residents and from the selectmen “an isolated incident due to loss of a circuit.”
Smoke rising from manhole covers paralyzed part of downtown Framingham in July 2008, leaving a dozen businesses without power for at least four hours. An NSTAR spokesman blamed the “heat frying underground wires.”
And so on. NSTAR blames power outages on a “faulty wire,” “equipment failure,” “cable malfunction,” “cable fault,” “equipment malfunction below the roadway,” “loss of a circuit,” “heat frying underground wires,” “failure on an underground line,” “faulty cable,” “blown circuit,” “a circuit failed,” “cable failure,” “mechanical problems,” “blown fuses,” “problems with a circuit,” “underground cable failure,” “malfunctioning underground cable” and “underground power lines and transformers failed and shorted out.”
None of these explanations address the real question: Does NSTAR do enough preventive maintenance and equipment upgrades to prevent power outages?
NSTAR and its regulator, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, must ascertain the root cause of each power outage, so that it can require NSTAR to do the proper maintenance and necessary upgrades, so that fewer outages will occur. And newspapers must ask tough questions of NSTAR’s spokespersons, so that the public can finally know the true cause of each outage.
Patrick Mehr, a Town Meeting member in Lexington, is a member of the town’s Electric Utility Committee. He writes the Lexington Town Watch blog.