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More power to the people

Friday, September 9, 2011

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A tree crew works to remove a fallen tree that landed on power lines on Mansfield Road in North Attleboro after Tropical Storm Irene last week. Mansfield and North Attleboro's municipal power companies have received much praise for their quick responses to power outages after the storm. (Staff file photo by Mark Stockwell)

This time, government did something well.

While large swaths of the region remained powerless days after Tropical Storm Irene's departure, homes and businesses served by the public electrical utilities in Mansfield and North Attleboro quickly returned to life as usual.

"As of (Tuesday) evening, everyone's electricity has been restored," Mansfield Town Manager William Ross said as he commended workers at the town's public utility for their work in the storm minimizing outages.

All told, about half of the Mansfield Municipal Electric Department's 9,600 customers lost power as a result of Irene, compared with outages of more than 90 percent in communities served by power company National Grid, including Attleboro, Plainville, Rehoboth and Foxboro.

And the vast majority of those who lost power in Mansfield had their electricity back by Sunday night, while National Grid was still trying to restore power to pockets of Foxboro and Norton.

North Attleboro fared even better.

"We didn't lose a single pole in the storm," North Attleboro Electric General Manager James Moynihan said. "We've spent a lot of effort in recent years upgrading our equipment."

In North Attleboro, only 4,000 out of 13,000 customers lost power during Irene, according to North Attleboro Electric, and by Wednesday only a few isolated households were still powerless while neighboring Plainville was almost totally dark.

As a result of restoring power quickly, many businesses in Mansfield and North Attleboro, from small stores to the shopping malls, have been bustling this week with customers from communities still in the dark.

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Mansfield Light Department crews work on power lines on Otis Street last week after Tropical Storm Irene. (Staff file photo by Mark Stockwell)

Moynihan attributed the lack of outages in the North Attleboro system to the utility's recent investments in maintenance and infrastructure upgrades, a sentiment echoed by Mansfield Electric Director Gary Babin.

"I think it's fair to say that our system, as it is constructed, is solid, well built and well designed," Babin said. "It's a very reliable system to start with."

As National Grid has struggled to bring back electricity to many cities and towns in the area, local officials have questioned the condition and maintenance of the utility's system.

Asked why they were able to restore power to customers so much faster than private utiltiies, Mansfield and North Attleboro officials cited a number of factors, from their smaller size to organizational missions.

"Because we are publicly owned and report to citizens, we have a responsibility to the community that is greater than a private corporation. Many of the employees live in the community so they take that very seriously." Ross said. "We are not as bottom-line oriented. We don't have shareholders looking to get a dividend every year."

A more tangible reason could be that the municipal utilities deal with a far smaller network than the vast multi-state system operated by National Grid and, proportionally, are better equipped to respond to crisis.

"We are more concentrated," Babin said. "We have four line crews that we can dispatch within town, as opposed to larger utilities that may have an average of one or two crews for any town."

And in addition to having more crews, the public utility crews tend to know the system they are working on more intimately than private crews covering a larger area.

"Our crew has an advantage because we know the system," said Moynihan of North Attleboro. "They know where the transformers are and they know how the circuits are set up."

The public utilities also appear to work in closer concert with other municipal departments, collaborating and communicating with public works, police and fire. This week, Attleboro leaders complained about National Grid not communicating with the city or allowing public works crews to accompany utility crews to help remove fallen trees. National Grid says it cannot allow city workers to work closely with them because of safety concerns.

Beyond the practical advantages of municipal utilities, residents also get the emotional benefit of knowing their power is being delivered by someone local they can call or confront personally with problems.

While it has many local employees and managers, National Grid's corporate ownership is in Britain.

"We have a person answering every call," Babin said.

Sun Chronicle Staff Writer Amy DeMelia contributed to this report.