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Town Meeting charged up about municipal electric co.

Ian B. Murphy/Staff Writer Fri Oct 12, 2007

Lexington - The idea of a town-owned electric company, one cheaper than Lexington's current provider, has support from town leadership. But many state-level measures must happen before it can become a reality.

Town Meeting overwhelmingly passed an article Wednesday endorsing Bill 3319 in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The bill, if passed, will update century-old laws concerning the formation of municipal electric companies, known as "munis." The language of the current law allows utility companies, like NStar in Lexington's case, to veto any attempt at forming a muni.

No munis have been formed since 1926, according to article sponsor Patrick Mehr, because electric companies like NStar, which owns the poles, wires and billing rights in town, don't want the competition. NStar currently has a virtual monopoly on supplying electricity to towns like Lexington, and therefore NStar has been fighting in the legislature to have the bill delayed or killed.

"[The passage of a bill allowing the creation of munis] is the single most terrifying thing that could happen to NStar, which is why they are going to fight it with all their power," said Mehr.

There are 41 munis in Massachusetts. In towns like Shrewsbury and Marblehead, electricity rates are significantly lower than those in Lexington. According to Mehr, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 3, NStar charges on average 59 percent more than a muni.


In a presentation to Town Meeting, Mehr equated NStar's higher rate to something more common: the cost of gas.

"It's as if we in Lexington all paid $4.30 per gallon of gas instead of $2.70," said Mehr.

He was happy with Town Meeting's support, which was nearly unanimous. "I am pleased that Town Meeting is now aware of one of the best-kept secrets in Massachusetts: NStar charges 59 percent more than munis," he said. "I hope the legislature can do something about it by giving community the option to explore a muni."

Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, is the lead sponsor of House Bill 3319. He attended Wednesday's town meeting to answer questions concerning the legislation.

Kaufman pointed to three issues that were holding the bill back. Kaufman said his colleagues were concerned about whether a community has the knowledge and expertise to run an electric company, exactly how NStar's infrastructure could be assessed to facilitate the town's purchase of that infrastructure, and what would happen if the muni fails.

"The prospects for the bill's passage are not good until we have some more research into the questions that my colleagues are concerned about," said Kaufman. "I certainly hope we can get that research to happen and then to ultimately pass the legislation."

Kaufman will fight for money in this year's state budget to allow five towns and the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to study their roles in making new municipal electric companies a reality. Lexington, Cambridge, Newton, Plymouth, and Worcester are all earmarked for $150,000 for feasibility studies, if Kaufman's proposal succeeds. The DPU would receive $100,000 to study how to properly assess infrastructure.