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Blacked out and fed up

Sep 1, 2011

(NECN: Peter Howe, Bridgewater/Boston, MA) - Four days after Hurricane Irene left New England, more than 30,000 electric customers in Massachusetts were still without power Thursday evening -- including about 500 in the college town of Bridgewater, where nerves are fraying.

"We sat with the president of National Grid yesterday and our police chief looked her in the eye and said: 'Your response stunk,' '' Bridgewater Town Manager Troy B.G. Clarkson said in an interview, adding that this feels like a bad pattern. "Back last December, we had a major weather event, and the response from National Grid was sluggish at best.''

Despite promises then of better service and response in the future, the multi-day outage Bridgewater's now enduring has Clarkson and other town leaders looking into: Could they dump National Grid and launch their own local utility?

"That may very well be a solution for the citizens here to create a 'Bridgewater Municipal Light Department,' or maybe there's a legislative solution where we can join up with another existing" locally-operated electric utility, such as municipal departments in neighboring Taunton and Middleborough.

It's a longshot it ever happens. Under century-old state laws governing municipal light departments, cities and towns can petition the state Department of Public Utilities to let them buy existing power systems from for-profit utilities at a negotiated price, but the law effectively gives utilities a veto over any deal.

Aside from one special case in the former Fort Devens, no town has succeeded in forming a municipal utility since 1926, and no community since then has ever persuaded a for-profit utility like National Grid, NStar, or Western Massachusetts Electric to let a "muni" take over their local operations.

(One of the most authoritative websites on the challenges towns like Bridgewater face to "municipalizing" utility operations is at

For its part, National Grid says the problem is utilities up and down the East Coast were overwhelmed by Irene and the unprecedented level of damage it caused.

National Grid Massachusetts president Marcy Reed said with 5.7 million electric customers from North Carolina to Maine losing power, utilities in this storm had far less access to "mutual aid" repair crews from utilities in neighboring regions than they usually wood after a storm.

In Rhode Island, National Grid local president Tim Horan said crews from as far as Kansas and Idaho were working 16-hour shifts, and "we're committed to getting this resolved as soon as possible."

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who represents utility customers in rate-making cases with the state utility commission, has ordered utilities to brief her within 30 days on the causes of and response to the post-Irene power fiasco.

"We understand as we speak that there are a lot of people frustrated right now, there are still a lot of people in Massachusetts without power,'' Coakley said.

The questions she wants utilities to answer are, in planning for and managing the aftermath of Irene, "What worked? What didn't work? Because a part of this is not just 'What is their response during the storm at the moment?' but 'What should they be reasonably planning for and what did they anticipate would be the problems? What was the preparedness, and what was the execution of the plans?' And we're going to take a good hard look at that ... We have to anticipate in New England, even if it's not every year, that we have these kinds of natural disasters that cause all of these kinds of issues.''