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COMMENTARY: It’s time to give communities right to have own power company

By Patrick Mehr
Sep 13, 2011

Municipal electric districts save 23% on power bills, and you own them.

Last year, NStar charged a household using 500 kilowatt-hours per month $86. The average municipal utility (or “muni”) in Massachusetts charged only $70.

After Tropical Storm Irene, munis restored power in a couple of days, but NStar and National Grid took up to a week.

The best way to get NStar and other investor-owned utilities (or “IOUs”) to improve their service and reduce their sky-high rates is to end the permanent monopoly they now enjoy.

Under current state law, written a century ago, no Massachusetts city or town can replace its IOU with another distribution utility, period. That’s because the obsolete language in the law effectively gives IOUs a permanent monopoly.

We have been working for 10 years on legislation to make it possible to replace an IOU (NStar, National Grid, Unitil or Western Mass Electric) with a muni. There are 41 munis in Massachusetts that serve 15 percent of the state’s population, including in Middleboro, Taunton, Mansfield, North Attleboro, Concord, Wellesley, Holyoke, Marblehead and Peabody.

Since 1926, no muni was formed in Massachusetts except Devens, a special case.

After the 2008 ice storm in central Massachusetts, it took Unitil two weeks to fully restore power, while neighboring munis had completed the job in two days. Officials and residents in Fitchburg and other communities served by Unitil are since painfully aware of the impossibility to replace their local IOU absent legislative action to amend our obsolete state law.

IOUs again are performing far less well than munis to restore power after Tropical Storm Irene, according to reports from The Patriot Ledger and the Fall River Herald-News.

Join the other 140 Massachusetts towns saving money and getting better service.

With the support of many legislators, more than 140 Massachusetts cities and towns, the Cape Light Compact, the MMA, The Boston Globe and more than 2,600 residents who signed a petition, Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, has filed for five sessions in a row what is now Bill H869, the Muni Choice Bill.

Bill H869 would allow a city or a town, after in-depth studies and vetting by the state Department of Public Utilities, to acquire the IOU’s local distribution infrastructure that serves the community (poles, wires, transformers, sectionalizers, substations, etc.) at its fair, regulated value to start a local muni, similar to the 41 already in existence.

Investor-owned utilities address poor service and high rates more seriously when there is competition from munis.

If cities and towns finally have the option to purchase their local IOU’s distribution infrastructure to operate their own muni, IOUs will begin to address poor service and high rates more seriously.

If the Muni Choice Bill is enacted, very few communities will actually make the switch because the process will be complex, lengthy and expensive. But all residents, businesses and communities in Massachusetts will benefit.

Large monopolies, as Massachusetts IOUs are thanks to a century-old law, should be a thing of the past for the benefit of our economy and of our quality of life.

Patrick Mehr heads the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice. This column was first published in the Plymouth Daily News and is reprinted with permission.