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GUEST COLUMN: Cold reality 8 years after ice storm

By Cathy Clark, Guest Columnist


And it started with a storm.

Life gets so busy, particularly at this time of year. In 1996, when the power went out, we wouldn't have expected to be without electricity for almost a week. It was December and for me with young children, it couldn't have happened, as for most families, at a worse time. Like others, we expected power to be restored quickly. Hours turned into days without real answers from our utility, Unitil, nor officials. This was a wake-up call.

In 2008, when the power went out, 1996 was my first thought. When the almost two-week nightmare was over, I knew something had to change. I convinced a friend we needed to try to petition our officials and the governor to get rid of Unitil. In 2008, much of what we have now with social media was new or nonexistent, but between standing in the center of town and the news outlets, the Get rid of Unitil petition took off like wildfire. Within a month, we had thousands of signatures and comments that still exist to this day on the Internet. After presenting the petition to then-Gov. Deval Patrick, I was naive. It became apparent with the legislative delegation standing behind the governor, all crammed into a small press room at the Statehouse, that this wasn't something that would be easy. Then came the olive branch, the can-do storm legislation that was going to satisfy our concerns about an extended outage ever happening again and the ramifications for any investor-owned utility.

There's that word, "investor-owned."

Since the ice storm, there have been multiple protests and rate-hike hearings in Boston and locally. In August 2015, at the last local hearing, Unitil requested, as part of its filing it is looking for, a mechanism to provide for annual revenue increases in between base-rate proceedings, to reflect an amount the company believes the proper cost of providing "safe and reliable" service.

Given that its current infrastructure includes multiple locations of bare exposed lines that are shredding -- even as close to their facility as the intersection of John Fitch Highway and Summer Street -- Unitil certainly does not have to look far to find its shortcomings.

As a result of Unitil's subpar infrastructure, it is reported to have distribution losses of 4.6 percent to 5.2 percent, compared with only 3.5 percent to 4 percent at municipal utilities. Higher distribution losses are an indication that distribution networks are not maintained properly, or not upgraded to keep up with the growing load. Many distribution circuits at investor-owned utilities like Unitil remain at the less-efficient level, compared with municipal utilities. Municipal utilities have, as a result, proven their effectiveness in major storms; their use of spacer cable to support the system and tree wire have shown that quality infrastructure does make a difference with outages. This is what is needed in our region.

The municipal-choice legislation would open the door to competition just by the mere passage of the bill; I have argued this with our governor, who, like others, has not had time to speak with ratepayers burdened with bills into the hundreds and are picking between paying electric and buying groceries.

Several years ago, the municipal-choice legislation made it to the House floor as an amendment. The Democratic leadership held the strong gavel as lawmakers stood silent, with the exception of then-Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk. Practical, common-sense legislation, yet politics undermined the dire need for passage. Shameful.

As we approach 2017, the hope and need is still there for the muni bill. What can we do? Reach out to family, friends across the state. North Central Massachusetts is not a Boston suburb. We need others to speak up to their lawmakers to demand change. Eversource, National Grid, WMEC are all investor utilities, and their ratepayers would also at least see rate relief by the passage of this bill. Our votes DO count. We do HAVE the power.

Cathy Clark lives in Lunenburg. More on municipal choice: