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Local utilities overpower Irene

By Fred Hanson
GateHouse News Service
Sep 02, 2011

At the height of Tropical Storm Irene on Sunday, more than 13,300 electricity customers in Braintree, Hingham and Hull were without power.

By Monday morning, that number was down to about 125 customers.

At the same time, nearly a quarter of the 2.3 million customers served by the state’s two largest utilities, NStar and National Grid, were still in the dark. And as of Thursday, that number was still around 46,000 customers. Some are not expected to get their power back until Sunday night.

While far smaller than their investor-owned counterparts, local municipal electric utilities got their customers back up and running more quickly.

The reason may be as simple as the fundamental difference between the two.

“Our 100 percent focus goes to the ratepayer, who is the stockholder,” said Paul Heanue, general manager of the Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant. “In an investor-owned utility, they have to satisfy both the stockholder and the ratepayer.”

Heanue said it is reflected in efforts made to keep power on. Hingham keeps a tree-trimming crew working year-round. That prevents trees from knocking out service, the primary cause of problems from Irene.

“All year long, we’re getting ourselves ready for this type of thing,” Heanue said.

Richard Miller, operations manager of the Hull Municipal Light Plant, said the investments they made in more reliable equipment also paid off.

“We can spend money on maintenance,” Miller said.

The only reason the whole town was without power for about eight hours Sunday is that a National Grid transmission line that serves the town got knocked out.

Although some areas of town were hit hard, most of the 4,000 customers of the Braintree Electric Light Department who lost power had it back in a couple of hours, General Manager William Bottiggi said.

“We had a lot of work to do, and we got it done fast,” Bottiggi said.

The utility had its crews in at 8 a.m. Sunday for the storm.

“We had our first call at 8:20 a.m. Sunday,” Bottiggi said.

For the first time, BELD had a worker at the police station, in order to get the word on outages faster, Bottiggi said. BELD officials hope to continue doing this in future storms, he added.

Customer for customer, no utility faced a bigger task than Middleboro Gas and Electric. On Sunday, 12,000 of the utility’s 15,000 customers in Middleboro and Lakeville lost power, said Sandy Richter, the utilities public communications manager.

“We were one of the hardest-hit utilities, because of our size, because we are so rural and heavily wooded,” Richter said.

The municipal utility covers an area of 101 square miles, about twice the size of Boston.

Richter said service was expected to be restored to all customers by Thursday night.

The larger utilities said the comparison with their municipal counterparts is unfair.

“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” said Caroline Allen of NStar.

She said the company canceled all vacations and brought everyone into work for the storm so service could be restored as quickly as possible.

“The availabilities of extra crews and contract crews during the this storm was a big challenge,” she said.

NStar and National Grid have brought in crews from as far away as Colorado and New Brunswick, Canada.

Vanessa Charles of National Grid said the company serves a much larger area than the municipal utilities, and some communities suffered much more damage than others.

“You’re talking about trees taking out hundreds of miles of lines,” Charles said. “This is truly a natural disaster.”

Reach Fred Hanson at fhanson@ledger.com.