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Chernick: Ending NSTAR’s hammerlock on Lexington

By Paul Chernick
Wicked Local Lexington
Sep 29, 2011

Lexington — Tropical Storm Irene demonstrated once again that NSTAR and other for-profit utilities underperform compared to the municipal utilities, even though they charge more. According to the MMWEC monthly residential bill comparisons, Lexington households pay NSTAR 23 percent more than the average Massachusetts muni rate.

After Irene, local newspapers in the hard-hit areas reported that munis restored many customers in hours and all customers in a couple days, while most NSTAR customers in neighboring towns remained in the dark, some for nearly a week. Coping with outages was complicated by NSTAR’s failure to provide timely information. Lexingtonians have emailed me that they could not reach anyone on NSTAR’s outage line, even after days in the dark, getting only the automated message “we have no updates for you at this time, try back later.”

Nor did NSTAR work well with the towns. The same newspaper reports quote multiple town managers’ complaints about poor communication with big utilities. When the Franklin town manager called me to talk about forming a muni, his biggest complaint was National Grid’s inability to tell the town how long repairs might take, while the nearby North Attleboro muni kept the town informed.

This is not new. After the 2008 ice storm, for-profit Unitil left the towns it serves in the dark (literally and figuratively) for two weeks, while neighboring munis restored power to most in two days.

Munis excel for many reasons. Muni employees know every street, line and pole far better than NSTAR linemen who travel from Provincetown to Boston to Hopkinton. When muni customers have a problem, they know who to call (or buttonhole at the supermarket). Munis maintain their distribution networks better and work with their towns to trim trees, reducing outages on overhead lines. Some munis, like Concord, gradually move their wires underground. Munis employ more linemen than for-profit utilities to cover comparable areas. And munis charge less for this better service.

The best way to get NSTAR to improve its atrocious service and reduce its high rates is to end its monopoly. If a town could buy the for-profit utility’s local distribution equipment and operate its own muni, NSTAR would have to address seriously its poor service and high rates. Unfortunately, a century-old Massachusetts law, written when a town could build its own distribution system, now effectively bars municipalities from buying existing equipment, effectively giving for-profit utilities a permanent monopoly. Even if those legal impediments were removed, the process will remain complex, lengthy and expensive. If for-profit utilities respond by improving service, very few communities will pursue municipalization. But all NSTAR customers would benefit from the prospect of competition.

For the fifth consecutive legislative session, Lexington state Rep. Jay Kaufman has filed the Muni Choice Bill H869. The bill would allow a town, after in-depth studies and review, to start a muni by acquiring the local distribution equipment at its fair value to the regulated utility. Lexington, 140 cities and towns, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Environment Massachusetts, the Boston Globe and the governor support this legislation.

But for-profit utilities oppose it. According to the Secretary of State’s database, NSTAR spent $105,000 to keep the Muni Choice Bill from reaching the floor of the Legislature in 2010.

We now may be getting a fair hearing before the Legislature’s energy committee, but additional roadblocks may still arise. If you have a personal story about your frustration with NSTAR, please share it with House Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray (contact information at “
Leadership”) and ask them to get H869 passed, so municipalities finally have the option to form munis, reduce costs and improve service.

Paul Chernick is chairman of the Lexington Electric Utility Committee.