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Residents fight for municipal power in the dark

May 08, 2012

(FOX 25 / - In the past year, the New England region has been hit with a number of power outages after storms.

Many residents of Massachusetts were left frustrated after the big power companies left them in the dark for days; however, a state law stands in the way of cities and towns who want to provide their residents with power.

Braintree is one of the 41 municipal electric departments in Massachusetts that provides power to its residents using a power plant.

William Bottiggi, General Manager of Braintree Electric, told FOX 25 that the town employs 10 full-time linemen who are familiar with the town and its streets.

The longest widespread outage in recent memory occurred in August during Hurricane Irene.

"We had a lot of damage. We had like 3,000 customers out of 16,000 out at one time. We got the vast majority of them back within in 48 hours," Bottiggi said.

Thousands of National Grid customers waited a week for power following the surprise 2011 October snowstorm, and some NStar customers in Boston were in the dark for five days following a transformer fire in the Back Bay.

With large, investor-owned companies providing power to 85 percent of the state, frustration is at an all-time high.

Several cities and towns have discussed dumping their providers to form municipal utilities, but the process is nearly impossible due to a century old law that allows private utilities to essentially block them by refusing to sell infrastructure like poles and lines.

The last municipal utility formed in Massachusetts was in 1926.

Patrick Mehr, of Lexington, is one of the people leading the crusade to change that law. He has been at it for nearly a decade, but worries that there is no end in sight.

A bill designed to make it easier for municipalities to form electric companies was introduced on Beacon Hill during this session, but the bill has since been redrafted.

Mehr said the changes essentially kill the future of municipal power by making it too expensive. He says when it comes to lobbying Beacon Hill, his organization, Mass Alliance for Municipal Choice, simply can't compete with the millions spent by the large utilities.

State Representative Stephen Dinatale, of Fitchburg, supports the idea of municipal power citing lower costs and better service, but he admits it will be an uphill battle at the Statehouse.

Until then most Massachusetts residents will have to rely on an investor-owned utility whether they like it or not.

Both National Grid and NStar declined FOX 25's requests for an on-camera interview for this story; however, in a statement NStar said that there are many potential pitfalls for communities to be aware of as they consider creating municipal utilities for their electric service.

"NStar values all of our customers and we wouldn't want to lose any of them for any reason."