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Unitil petition delivered

By Matt Murphy,
Posted: 03/19/2010

BOSTON -- Two groups fed up with the high electricity rates they are paying their current providers delivered a petition to lawmakers Thursday urging the Legislature to pass a bill that would make it easier for cities and towns to set up their own municipal electric companies.

The activist groups -- Get-Rid-Of-Unitil and the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice -- presented a petition with 2,275 signatures collected online to state Rep. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and the House chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

"I think you'll see in the statements we have here the many, many reasons why this bill should pass," said Lunenburg's Cathy Clark, the leader of Get-Rid-Of-Unitil.

The bill got a hearing at the Statehouse last September, but has failed to advance as lawmakers continue to study what they've described as an "incredibly complicated" issue.

Finegold told the petitioners, including Clark, Lunenburg Utility Task Force member Carolynn McCarthy and Lexington Utility Task Force member Patrick Mehr, that he has taken their efforts to push the legislation very seriously, but needs more time to analyze the bill.

"Believe me when I tell you, all the work you're doing is not falling on deaf ears," Finegold said.

Rather than send the bill to a study committee that would have killed any hope of it passing, Finegold's committee filed for an extension giving lawmakers until July 14 to make a recommendation for this session.

More than two-thirds of the signatures came from Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby, the four communities served by the New Hampshire-based Unitil. The relationship between Unitil and its customers in those communities has been rocky since the devastating ice storm in December 2008 left customers without service for up to two weeks and exposed weaknesses in Unitil's infrastructure.

Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, and Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, were on hand to drive home the point that residents in their district are extremely dissatisfied with Unitil.

Benson said the cost of electricity in her district is costing constituents jobs.

"This area is the highest of the high," Benson said. "We're a manufacturing region, and we're seeing our major employers leave."

DiNatale said he has yet to see Unitil make any significant improvements to its infrastructure, which is driving up the cost for consumers. Poor efficiency, he said, has led to 7.5 percent of all energy production wasted, twice the industry average.

Municipal electric advocates argue that locally owned companies can provide service at a much lower cost than industry giants like NStar and National Grid.

In 2009, Unitil charges $102 per month for 500 kilowatt hours of electricity compared to $97 a month for NStar, $82 for National Grid and $70 for the average muni, according to the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.

The petition drive, started in January of this year, attracted supporters from 154 communities across the commonwealth, most notably Gov. Deval Patrick. Four other gubernatorial candidates signed on to the effort as well, including Treasurer Tim Cahill, Republican Christy Mihos, Democrat Grace Ross and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein.

"We feel this bill doesn't hurt anyone, except maybe the operators of the (investor owned utilities)," said Mehr, a Lexington resident and organizer with the MAMEC.

Currently, 41 municipal electric companies -- known as munis -- are in operation across the state in places like Groton, Hudson, Princeton, Ashburnham and Concord.

State law does create a process to set up a municipal electric company, but none has been formed in Massachusetts since 1926.

Under the current statute, communities that want to provide electricity on their own must enter into negotiations with the current provider to buy its equipment at a fair market price.

If an agreement cannot be reached, the municipality is free to create its own competing system, but seldom can because of the extreme cost of building a grid infrastructure from scratch.

The proposed changes to the law would allow the Department of Public Utilities to establish a fair market rate and force the sale of the property to the city or town.

"The bills under consideration are a step in the right direction and will allow residents greater control and input into utility investment policies and decisions, services and service levels," Patrick wrote when he signed the petition.