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After the Storm: How Towns are Looking into Faster Response — Including Power Co. Changes

Could the lengthy power outages have been avoided?

By Abby Jordan
November 14, 2011

While branches and wires brought down by the October snow storm have largely been either cleared away or repaired, what remains from the days that dragged on in darkness after the storm is a push to prevent future frustration and lengthy power outages.

In Weston and surrounding towns, some residents went days without power. Sixteen percent of Sudbury residents still didn’t have it three days after the storm. At noon on Nov. 1, 21 percent of Wayland residents were without power. In Acton, nearly 5,000 were without power immediately following the storm.

Towns officials in Sudbury, Wayland, Weston and Acton have spoken out about the storm’s aftermath and response by utility and phone companies, though they’re doing more than just airing complaints. They’re looking for change.

Weston Town Manager Donna VanderClock said before the storm hit, she’d had the idea to explore whether the town could join the Wellesley Municipal Light Plant, which supplies electricity to residents in the neighboring town.

VanderClock said she’s heard over the years that municipal power tends to cost less, while power outages are fixed more rapidly than with the larger companies, like NStar, National Grid and Western Massachusetts Electric.

“It seems like a win-win for Weston,” VanderClock said.

The town manager said she has been in contact with a colleague in Wellesley, and officials there are willing to meet with Weston. VanderClock said she’s in the early stages of looking into municipal power for Weston, and much more information is needed.

“To me, if the town next door is successful in providing its residents with power, the thought is to take advantage of what they’re providing,” she said.

VanderClock said she doesn’t know what’s involved with potentially making a switch, though she’s heard it’s difficult to “get out from under a power company,” she said.

Wellesley and Concord are among 41 towns in the state with their own municipal light companies, and no new ones have been created since a 1920 law made it nearly impossible to do so, according to a recent
column in the Boston Herald.

House Bill 869 could make it easier for towns to create their own power companies, and the bill is garnering new attention since the October storm and ensuing lengthy power outages in the area.

Acton Town Manager Steve Ledoux told Patch after the storm
he’s happy to see a push toward passing the bill.

“The interesting thing throughout this whole power outage thing is that the media has kind of been getting the word out about municipally owned utilities, so I wonder if that is going to help change some of the focus or attitudes on Beacon Hill about the legislation that is needed,” he said.

However, he said moving away from the power company would be complicated, and infrastructure would need to be purchased from NStar. Acton Municipal Properties Director and Tree Warden Dean Charter said doing so would be “a huge undertaking.”

Both Acton officials said reaction to the storm by NSTAR could have been better. The power company’s priorities were different on what areas to fix first, Ledoux said, while Charter said there is little Acton workers can do to clear trees until NSTAR arrives.

“A lot of situations, we could have gone in and done some work if we knew the wires were safe,” Charter said. “Anything that falls on wires is within the jurisdiction of NSTAR.”

Tree-trimming talk

Tree-trimming is something that needs to be looked at in the wake of the storm, said Weston's VanderClock.

Wayland officials also talked tree-trimming following Hurricane Irene in August. Officials in several towns also want improved communication from power and phone companies when a storm hits.

Sudbury selectmen say they want to meet with NSTAR officials, and the town plans to review the company’s response with police, fire and public works officials.

“There have been no improvements to responsiveness or to the poor communication with town personnel,” said Selectmen Chairman Larry O’Brien during a Nov. 1 meeting. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to achieve an audience with anyone of rank at NStar, but we would very much like to pursue that.”

Wayland and Weston officials are also suggesting residents add their cell phones to the reverse 911 systems, as landline phones don’t work if the power is out. The capability to do so in Wayland was added after the storm. Links are available on the towns’ websites.

The state Dept. of Public Utilities has also scheduled a hearing on NSTAR at Walsh Middle School in Framingham on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. This hearing was originally designed to discuss Hurricane Irene response.

You can also join the conversation on Facebook:
Take Power: Mass. Residents Talk Utility Changes