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Power to the People: local light companies say they can be more responsive to customers

By Hiroko Sato,

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Littleton Electric Light Department lineman Rob Hunt of Lancaster replaces a streetlight fixture on Edsel Road. Hunt grew up in Littleton. SUN/JULIA MALAKIE

LITTLETON -- Hurricane-force winds had just toppled six utility poles like dominoes on Great Road last Monday when light, water and highway workers began descending on the scene in the biggest trucks they could find.

Hundreds of feet of wire lay strewn on the ground while still carrying power to much of Littleton and Boxboro. Rolling around them were the utility poles knocked from their bases. Other poles hung in the air, leaning toward the other side of the road and dragging the rest of the lines toward the ground.

The Littleton Electric Light and Water Department's focus was to quickly surround the remaining poles in the 2,000-foot stretch between Beaver Brook Road and the police station with dump trucks and heavy hydraulic equipment to keep them from falling.

The department shut down three circuits on those lines at 3:15 p.m., killing the power to 60 percent of Littleton and 90 percent of Boxboro. LELWD then split crews in half: one group focused on digging holes to re-erect the fallen poles; the other on restoring power. Making switches to the grid system that remained intact, LELWD restored power to 75 percent of Littleton and Boxboro by 7 p.m. and 90 percent by midnight.

All poles were rebuilt by 2 a.m.
Great Road reopened at 8 a.m. with all the poles standing as if nothing had happened. By Tuesday's end, only a handful households with problems that required work inside their homes by electricians remained dark.

Littleton's speedy comeback from what LELWD General Manager Savas Danos calls the worst power outage in the town's history came as no surprise to the residents or the workers. Those who live in the communities served by town electric departments say municipal electric agencies are often much faster at restoring power in time of crisis than conventional grid companies. The Halloween nor'easter of 2011, which left thousands of residents powerless for weeks across the state, caused 84 percent of 4,700 households served by Groton Electric Light Department to lose power. But 98 percent of the town had the power back within four days, said GELD Manager Kevin Kelly. Hurricane Sandy left 600 households dark last Monday night, and GELD restored connections to all but 10 by noon the following day.

Major factors behind the quick responses include the linemen's familiarity with the geography, Danos said. When they see a road blocked with fallen trees, they would immediately know alternative routes to get to the other side of the road. Crews from large utility companies would stand there, punching into a global-satellite system to find a way around it, Danos said.

In addition, Danos said, towns that have their own electric departments all have substations within the communities, making it easier to do the kind of circuit switches that Littleton had for temporary power restoration while rebuilding the utility poles last week. The workers also have intimate knowledge of the circuit connections.

"We have boots on the ground that know our systems," Kelly agreed.

But Kelly and Danos believe how an electric provider is financed affects its service even more.

"Our customers are our owners, so we want to give our customers the best service possible," Kelly said of GELD. "(Investor-owned utilities) have two masters: stockholders and customers, and we have one. That makes it a lot easier," Kelly said.

Many workers also live in town, Danos said.

"My staff has a passion and desire to take care of the customers, who are their neighbors and the people they know," Danos said.

"Because we are locally controlled and operated, our commitment to our customers is very strong," Vinnie Cameron, general manager of Reading Municipal Light Department -- which delivers power to 9,190 households in Wilmington and 16,810 others in Reading, North Reading and Lynnfield -- also said in her email to The Sun. About 5,500 of these homes reported losing power on Monday, but all but 100 had regained it by Wednesday morning.

That commitment translates into having more linemen, according to Kelly and Danos. Groton has six linemen for 32 square miles -- twice as many per square mile as investor-owned utilities did as of October 2011, Kelly said. Littleton has 12 linemen for Littleton and Boxboro, which total 27 square miles in area.

National Grid declined The Sun's request to provide the number of linemen per square mile, saying its staffing structure largely differs from those of municipal electric departments and comparing the figures wouldn't provide accurate pictures.

Deborah Drew, manager of media relations for the New England region for National Grid, said, however, that large utilities' ability to ramp up response and restoration efforts by bringing outside utility crews or providing in mutual aid -- as it did for ice storm-battered municipal electric departments in 2008 -- should be a big advantage to customers. They also have a large number of contractors available in the aftermath of storms.

In fact, National Grid and NStar restored power twice as fast last week as they did following the Halloween storm last year, resolving 75 percent of the problems within 36 hours, according to State Department of Public Utility Commissioner David Cash. Cash noted that the scope and scales of the outages that large utilities deal with are different from those that municipal departments face. NStar, for one, had 160,000 outages on Monday, which were reduced to half within 10 hours, Cash said.

Many municipal-electric supporters say locally controlled power systems can provide great service while keeping reasonable rates. They also say it is virtually impossible for towns to create their own electric departments nowadays largely because of the high cost of buying the infrastructure from investor-owned utilities. The cost of equipment needed to start an electric utility, ranging from trucks to buildings, is also a problem, Cameron said.

Drew pointed out the predecessors of National Grid in Massachusetts were formed by aggregating municipal light departments.