Pasted Graphic

Mass. Market
An inside look at the Massachusetts business scene

Municipal electric departments outperformed NStar and National Grid in race to restore power

2011 August 31

by Jon Chesto

If you live in a town with a municipal electric utility, the odds are good that your power – if you lost it – was restored much more quickly after Irene hit last weekend than in the town next door.

Communities in Massachusetts with town-run light departments fared extremely well during the catastrophic outages that left hundreds of thousands of customers throughout the state without power. The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. keeps track of the electric load used by its membership, which consists of 20 munis – or about half of the municipal electric utilities in the state.

MMWEC spokesman David Tuohey tells me that the members’ overall electric load dropped off for a few hours on Sunday around the time when the storm’s fury reached its peak. But by the end of the day Sunday, the members’ total electric usage was pretty much back to normal – an indication that most of the customers served by MMWEC members were back up and running.

There were some stragglers, but they were in small pockets. Tuohey says most of the customers in Mansfield were restored by the end of the day Monday, and all of them were back on Tuesday morning. In contrast, most of Foxboro, the town next door, was still in the dark that morning, and nearly 250,000 electric customers were still without power statewide.

The munis in Braintree and Hingham (neither town is a member of MMWEC) were almost completely back to normal on Monday. For example, only 40 customers in Hingham were still not restored by Monday afternoon.

There are several factors that could explain why the municipal utilities performed better than the state’s much larger investor-owned utilities, NStar and National Grid.

Tuohey says for the most part, municipal crew members know the roads in their towns like the back of their hands, and can respond more quickly than the big utilities, partly because many of them live in the towns they serve. He says they know the most likely problem spots, and they often prep for a storm by going through the town and removing branches that look like they are going to fall. He also says most of the munis have aggressive tree-trimming programs, aimed at reducing the outages when the bad storm does hit.

Managers at the Braintree and Hingham light departments also pointed to their towns’ use of copper wires, which they say are more durable than the more widely-used aluminum wires.

You can find waste in almost any level of government. But, at least when it comes to municipal electric utilities, having a town-run system seems to be an efficient and effective way of keeping the lights on.