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Perfect storm brings support for 'muni' choice

The Lowell Sun

By Peter Lucas

In some ways, last week's devastating storm-related power outage -- and the woeful incompetence of the utility companies in dealing with it -- may turn out to be the "perfect storm," the one we all have been waiting for.

If nothing else, the well-justified public furor over the long delays in restoring power to hundreds of thousands of ill-treated customers of National Grid, NStar, Unitil and the other electric-utility conglomerates has greatly sparked interest in long-stalled legislation allowing municipalities to set up their own utilities.

The "muni" bill -- short for municipal lighting authorities -- would amend an obsolete, century-old law that prohibits cities and towns from replacing underperforming and costly investor-owned utility companies with their own municipal facilities.

Massachusetts has 41 communities that have their own "munis," including Ashburnham, Concord, Littleton and Reading. They control their own power assets and infrastructure distribution systems, and have flexibility in choosing their power supplier, which is usually cheaper. They also generally fare much better in storms than communities that rely on utilities because the "munis" are locally controlled. The locals usually know which trees to trim before the storm comes in and knocks down all the trees and the power lines along with them.

However, these "munis" were set up 100 years ago, when it was feasible for a community to establish one , using its own poles and wires, and buying electricity from a local power supplier.

However, in 1926 laws were passed that made it practically impossible for communities to set up a "muni." Large corporations, which later became big multinational corporations, like National Grid, took over the control and distribution of electricity. It then became economically impossible for a community to set up its own electric distribution system. In addition, the new laws essentially granted the corporations veto power over new "munis" by refusing to sell their assets to the community.

Under the current law, communities and customers are held hostage by the big utility companies because there is no viable option for the establishment of a muni. In other words, the law, as now written, grants the utilities a monopoly over the communities with no threat of competition. This has led to the indifference of the companies to the repeated complaints from customers over recent power outages that have not only cost millions of dollars in damages, but lives as well.

The "muni" bill would change all that.

"This is not only an idea whose time has come," said Rep. Jay Kaufman, a Democrat from Lexington, "but an idea whose time, after 10 years, has come again." Kaufman, who has filed "muni" legislation for 10 years in a row, only to see it thwarted each year by lobbyists for the powerful utilities, said, "This is returning power to the people. It is time to provide for some accountability," Kaufman said.

Under the bill, which has many co-sponsors, including Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Democrat from Fitchburg, the utility companies would be required to sell their assets to a municipality seeking to set up its own "muni" at a price set by the Department of Public Utilities. The "munis" would be able to choose their own power supplier under a competitive-bid system and therefore buy electricity at lower cost. Even the threat of going "muni" alone would frighten utilities enough to clean up their act.

Sen. Benjamin Downing, chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which has the bill before it, indicated that his committee would report the bill out shortly with a favorable recommendation. "People feel they have no recourse under the current system," the Pittsfield Democrat said.

But probably most important, control over the system would be local, and there would be accountability. You know you can talk to your local state rep, or your city councilor or your selectman about a tree falling on a wire. They care, or if they don't care, you vote them out. Whom do you talk to at National Grid or NStar or Unitil? Nobody, that's who.

It would amount to a public service if the Legislature acted quickly on this "muni" bill, if only to help abate the anger among the people generated by the incompetent and indifferent response to the power outage by the utility companies. But that may be asking for too much, since there has been no leadership on the issue from Bambi, the governor, who has been too busy campaigning for Barack Obama to do his job.

Let's just propose this: Have the Legislature and Bambi this year act on the "muni" bill as quickly as they acted on the bill legalizing casino gambling.

Peter Lucas' political column appears Tuesday and Friday. Email him at