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Editorial: Stopping the next outage

The MetroWest Daily News
Nov 06, 2011
Power outages are nothing new, but nobody we know can remember outages as widespread and long-lasting as those that hit Massachusetts twice in the last two months. Six days after last weekend's snowstorm there were still more than 80,000 Massachusetts homes without power.

A consensus is forming that this is no coincidence.

Nor is it a coincidence that, as when Tropical Storm Irene struck in August, residents have seen fewer outages and power more quickly restored in communities served by municipal power companies - like Hudson, Wellesley, Groton and Concord - than in towns served by investor-owned behemoths NStar and National Grid.

This situation was predictable, and we don't just mean it was predictable that hurricanes and snowstorms will knock branches off of trees. Back when electric deregulation was the subject of a referendum battle, workers for the utilities predicted that, when electricity producers were separated from those that owned the transmission lines, companies in the low-margin wire business would cut back on routine, year-round trimming of trees near power lines. Give the trees a few years to grow, they said, and storms would bring down limbs and electric lines all over the state.

Deregulation passed, and a retired power company lineman in Natick told a Daily News reporter this week what happened: "They don't have the manpower that they once had," said Pat Young. In the 35 years he worked for NStar, Young watched the number of guys in the locker room dwindle from 60 to about 30.

This also reminds us that the interests of the shareholders in a privately-owned company do not always coincide with the interests of the customers. In a monopoly situation - which the "wire companies" have - this can be a real problem.

In the interests of their shareholders, executives make decisions based on cold cost/benefit calculations. Utilities' number-crunchers, for instance, may decide that they save more by cutting back on routine line maintenance year in and year out, than it costs them to repair the damage to their lines from an occasional emergency.

There are several ways to address this. The state Legislature has a bill on its plate that would make it easier for municipalities to purchase lines from the utilities and establish their own power companies, which is all but impossible under current law. It would be expensive, but some frustrated local officials are ready to give it a serious look.

Another bill, put forward by state Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, would change the cost/benefit equation utility managers face. Winslow's bill would require that, for every power outage lasting more than eight hours, utilities would have to refund to customers two days of their average utility bill for every day without power. We don't know whether that would be enough to get giant utilities to reinvest in line maintenance, but it's a good approach.

Winslow is also preparing a model bylaw that, if enacted by Town Meeting, would require utilities to trim branches close to wires on the local right-of-way.

All ideas are worth pursuing. It's better to prevent power outages than scramble to repair them while people are freezing in the dark.