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Oct. 15, 2012


30 Issues: Why Don't More Cities and Towns Own Their Electric Systems?

By Anne Mostue


Pasted Graphic
Credit Anne Mostue / WGBH
A utility truck drives through downtown Mansfield, Mass. The town owns and operates its electric system, down the the power lines and street lights.

Our 30 Issues in 30 Days series continues with something technical but relevant to anyone who plugs a radio into a wall: electricity. Some Massachusetts towns are trying to find a way to cut off big electric companies and maintain their own power systems.

Remember the chainsaw sounds from the Halloween snowstorm a year ago? They worked nonstop to clear trees that took down power lines across Massachusetts. Last October, 650,000 customers were left in the dark. For perspective, imagine the population of 22 Foxboros.

In the one Foxboro that matters, the storm's aftermath ignited anger in townspeople. What makes situations like this highly emotional is the love/hate relationship residents have with their power company. When it works, no one complains. When it doesn't patience runs out fast.

Storms of this magnitude lead to press conferences, hearings, investigations and in some cases, calls for competition with power giants NSTAR and National Grid. Case in point: Mansfield. As Foxboro sat in the dark for days waiting for National Grid, power was restored in Mansfield within hours.

“Folks that work on the lines, they’re on call and when you live in town your ability to respond directly to a problem is pretty immediate," says Gary Babin, director of Mansfield Municipal Electric Department. Since 1903 the town has distributed electricity through power lines and substations it owns. In Mansfield, the electric company vehicles are as ubiquitous as the police cars and firetrucks.

“We do the operations, maintain the lines, we do the customer service, the billing and collection, we do the engineering,” Babin says. They even hang Christmas lights in the center of town. Babin says his team of 22 employees knows every little corner of Mansfield, which makes a difference - both with preventative maintenance and storm response.

“They know the system so well that they can often anticipate problems that occur in the field. It seems to me that the biggest thing that separates us from larger, investor-owned utilities is the level of connection that we have with the residents. Their ability to get problems resolved in an expeditious manner and not get caught in a bureaucratic type situation where it’s difficult to find the right person that can solve their problem,” Babin says.

Here's how it works:

Mansfield is connected to the regional New England electricity grid and purchases power from it and from power plants connected to the grid. Depending on the price of energy in the open market, residents of Mansfield pay anywhere from 10 to 20% less than customers of NSTAR, National Grid, or other utilities. That, combined with the customer service complaints, has prompted people across the state to ask: why don’t we have our own municipal electric company?

“There’s a provision in law that dates to 1920 that basically gives the investor-owned utilities veto power over whether or not they will sell the facilities. And no matter what communities have tried, they’ve said, 'No,'" explains Democratic State Representative Jay Kaufman of Lexington. He has been trying to change the law for a decade, filing bill after bill on behalf of constituents, but they've gone nowhere. Of the state's 351 cities and towns, there are just 41 municipal electric companies in Massachusetts. No new municipal electric company has formed in Massachusetts since 1926.

“Public interest has remained fairly strong but the official interest, that is the interest on the part of town officials has been decreasing significantly. The town manager is not particularly interested. The current DPW head is not particularly interested. As I understand it their concerns are that the purchase price would be so high that it’s very questionable how quickly we would get a return on our investments. And they have become more sensitive to and nervous about what it takes to manage a utility of this sort," Kaufman says.

Some Lexington residents are interested in competing with the big utilities. Paul Chernick heads the town's electric utility committee, “One of the things we’ve talked about with Concord, which has a municipal utility, is that Lexington and perhaps also Lincoln and Bedford would form our own municipal utilities, we’d own our own property, but perhaps we would have a common set of trucks and employees and so on, be managed initially by the Concord utility which has a lot of experience and is apparently very efficiently run.”

Chernick says he’s dissatisfied with the service he receives from NSTAR. If you're a major power company, you've heard these complaints before, especially after major storms.

NSTAR spokesman Michael Durand says, "Current law as written lays out a thoughtful, deliberate process for towns considering municipalizing electric service. The reason for this is that there are many potential pitfalls to consider before they take that step."

National Grid issue a statement pointing out their value to customers and a promise to improve its services.

But that isn't enough for Lexington's State Rep. Kaufman, who may file another bill in the next session. In the meantime, the idea of a municipal utility has become a topic of debate in various town elections. Kaufman says it’s about service, but it’s also about reducing the power of the state’s major utilities.

“As a customer of electric services I’d love there to be at least the option for some competition so that I know I’m getting the best services I can get at the best possible price. One of the problems with any monopoly is that you just don’t know that. And if there’s something wrong with state law that’s keeping us from knowing that, let’s change the law,” Kaufman says.

And if that doesn't work, just wait for the next storm and hope for the best.