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More power to the people?

Nov 3, 2011

(NECN: Peter Howe, Shrewsbury, MA) - Like most other towns in Central Massachusetts, Shrewsbury took a pounding Saturday night and Sunday, as the wet, heavy snow of an October Nor’easter left some 3,000 homes without electricity.

But as many National Grid customers in the region shivered into a sixth dark night Thursday without electricity, what happened in Shrewsbury was much different.

“We were fully restored by Tuesday night with all of our customers,’’ said Mike Hale, who heads the town-owned electric utility, SELCO, Shrewsbury Electric and Cable Operations.

Shrewsbury’s is one of 41 Bay State municipal electric utilities – called munis for short – and as a rule, they got power restored much faster than adjacent communities hit by equally bad weather that are served by for-profit utilities like National Grid, Unitil, Western Mass. Electric, or NStar. In many cases, they also lost much less power in the first place. Just 18 percent of homes and businesses in Shrewsbury, for example, lost power last weekend, compared to as many as 50 to 80 percent in some nearby towns.

“Year  after year after year we spend significant money on tree trimming so that when events like this happen there aren't as many tree related outages,’’ Hale said.

That kind of aggressive tree-trimming is something many town officials and utility union leaders say the for-profit utilities have cut back on in recent years, although utility company officials dispute that and insist their spending on tree work has been adequate, and this last storm was exceptionally damaging because heavy snow came down when leaves were still on trees, allowing massive weight to pile up and snap limbs that in turn ripped down power lines.

The experience of Shrewsbury and other cities and towns in Massachusetts has reignited interest in legislation that has languished for years on Beacon Hill to allow more cities and towns to form municipal utilities. Put most simply, it would let cities and towns interested in switching to a muni take over poles, wires, substations, and other plant and equipment from for-profit utilities like National Grid or Unitil, at a fair-market price to be established through a process overseen by regulators at the state Department of Public Utilities. To prevent a mass exodus of customers, the current version of the bill would allow no more than three communities per year to enter the “municipalization” process. More on the bill is available at

“We should be doing this. It’s time to do this,’’ said a lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat who has felt the impact of the most recent storm right in his back yard, covered with huge limbs, some leaning up against power lines.

After recent ice storms that caused days-long outages, followed by week-long outages after Hurricane Irene in August, followed by this latest power fiasco, Kaufman said he’s hearing much renewed interest in the legislation from colleagues on Beacon Hill.

“It’s one thing to offend people a couple of times; it's another thing to cancel Halloween’’ because of power outages, Kaufman said. The extent to which big utilities have struggled to get lights back on this past week shows that “investor-owned utilities have not done as good a job as the munis have in avoiding problems, and then addressing them when they happen and cleaning up.’’

Investor-owned utilities like National Grid and NStar do make several arguments against the “municipalization” bill. They say it would cost state and local governments millions in property tax and business-profit tax revenues that the utilities pay that munis would not, as well as cut the funding for “green” power promotion and energy conservation that for-profit utilities are required by state law to collect through electric bills. While many munis provide electricity at 25 or 30 percent less than the cost of for-profit utilities, a few are more expensive, and after accounting for the millions of dollars cities and towns would have to borrow to take over utility-owned grid equipment and set up their own operations, it’s not clear they could offer lower rates than today, utility executives say.

Kaufman said he’s not sure a whole lot of cities and towns would, after analyzing it, conclude it makes sense for them to take on the millions of dollars in costs and complexities that would attend creating a municipal light department. But given that utilities have been able to stymie creation of new “munis” since the 1920s, Kaufman said just passing legislation that gives local communities a credible threat of forcing a National Grid or a Unitil to turn over their local grid to the community might well provide the critical leverage communities badly need to get them to upgrade service and prevent a repeat of the recent all-too-frequent multi-day blackouts.

But supporters of the bill say since August, we've learned the hard way, nothing's as dear as reliable power.

“There's a direct accountability, because your neighbors are the ones that are taking care of your electric service. It's not the anonymous company on the end of a phone line," siad Kaufman.

A little difference that epitomizes the big difference between a SELCO and a big multi-state or multi-national utility: As power restoration proceeded Sunday and Monday, the Shrewsbury utility tweeted out on Twitter street-by-street updates on who was getting back power and who could expect it soon. Not exactly something you can expect from a utility with 1 million customers.

“Our crews know our system inside and out, and in addition to our crews, the local knowledge and cooperation amongst the other public works departments is outstanding,’’ Hale said.

When SELCO needed a backhoe to undertake a complex repair Sunday, the town water department showed up with one in 20 minutes, he recalled.

“When we needed a police officer or a fire crew they would respond instantly,’’ Hale said. And he agreed with Kaufman, the commitment of his employees – from the front office to workers up in cherry pickers – to their neighbors was passionate.

“They will go as long as it takes to get people restored,’’ Hale said. “It’s unbelievable to see the commitment of these guys.’’

With videographer David Jacobs