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The time may be right for public utilities bill


Monday, September 5, 2011

For residents and business owners frustrated by the performance of their private power company during Tropical Storm Irene, supporters of municipal utilities say they have a bill on Beacon Hill that could provide relief.

The bill, which in various forms has been rejected by lawmakers for almost a decade, would allow communities that want to create a municipal utility the chance to buy their local transmission system from the private company that owns it. The price would be set by the state's department of public utilities.

Under current law, private utilities have no obligation to sell their systems to anyone, including local governments, and virtually no new municipal utilities have been created since the early 20th century.

"National Grid and NStar are pleased to keep their monopoly, but everyone would be better off with competition," said Patrick Mehr of Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice, an advocate for the bill.

With many National Grid communities in the Attleboro area still reeling from power outages from Irene and envious of how quickly power was restored in towns with public utilities, interest in the bill from local lawmakers appears to be on the rise. "I am fully supportive," said state Sen. James Timility, D-Walpole, whose district includes publicly powered Mansfield, as well as many of the hardest hit National Grid communities. "In the light of this, I think it is something we should pursue vigorously."

"When you look at how North Attleboro and Mansfield compare to Foxboro and Norton, they had overwhelmingly good service rates," Timilty added.

Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, whose district includes Rehoboth, one of the last to see power restored, said he hadn't had a chance to review the particulars of the bill, but supports the concept of giving cities and towns more options.

"I am always in favor of giving towns autonomy - whether they can take advantage is another matter," Howitt said. "Simplifying and giving them autonomy and options is a good thing."

Supporters of municipal electric power say public utilities charge customers lower rates for electricity, invest more in transmission systems and respond faster and more effectively in emergencies like Irene.

A 2010 report from the state Department of Energy and Resources found that municipal utility rates were "substantially lower" than private utility rates between 2004 and 2008. The report did note that a new municipal utility would almost certainly have debts that existing public utilities, which are all at least 80 years old, do not have. Asked for its position on the bill and response to critics of the Irene performance, National Grid in a statement Friday said the municipal utility bill was "not a new issue."

"There is a process in place now if communities want to purchase our assets," the National Grid statement said. "We think we match up well with, or even surpass, most municipal light departments in price, service, energy efficiency programs and promoting renewables."

Asked to explain why National Grid communities had been without power so much longer than their neighbors with publicly-owned utilities, company spokeswoman Vanessa Charles said the vast scale of the damage done by Irene to National Grid equipment was directly responsible for the length of outages, but declined to compare the utility's performance with other providers.

There are currently 41 municipal power companies in Massachusetts, including North Attleboro's, which was formed in 1894, and Mansfield's, which was formed in 1903.

Although the current law allows towns to start their own utility if they want, creating a new duplicate system alongside the existing one is economically and practically difficult, if not impossible, in developed communities.

The municipal utility bill, sponsored by Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, is before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, where it has died in previous years.

An aide to Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, chairman of the committee, said Friday she did not expect any action on it until late fall.

In addition to 20 co-sponsors, the bill has the support of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and, according to statements he made in a 2010 WBZ radio interview, Gov. Deval Patrick.

State Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, said given the budget stress most cities and towns are now under, he would be surprised if many communities would have the resources to buy electrical systems if the bill passed.

Still, he said, if it can help avoid some of the problems local residents ran into after Irene, it would be worth looking at.

"I think the communities with light companies do have a leg up reacting when there are disasters," Ross said. "If it can become one of the tools in the toolbox that can help communities in a situation like this, I could be very interested."