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More towns study going electric

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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A movement toward local control of electric utilities is gaining political traction in several suburbs south of Boston, where some people say they no longer wish to do business with the private utility companies blamed for leaving residents without power for nearly a week following Tropical Storm Irene.

Residents and most top officials from hard-hit towns such as Scituate, Norwell, Bridgewater, and Easton are pressing forward with plans to explore the creation of new municipal electric utilities, a feat accomplished last in the 1920s.

“We are at the very beginning. We want to see if municipal control is even possible,’’ said Norwell Town Administrator James Boudreau.

“We want a faster response. This was a tropical storm. What if it was a category 2 hurricane? What if it was the winter?’’ he said, noting the efficient restoration of power in towns with electric utilities under municipal control, such as Hingham, Hull, and Braintree.

Last week, Bridgewater Town Manager Troy Clarkson expressed similar interest in exploring the issue. A parallel movement is afoot in Easton.

“We’re actively collecting information. If we could get to a point where National Grid fixes the issues, then there is no need for municipal control, but we aren’t there,’’ said Easton Town Administrator David Colton.

Over the past few weeks, an array of community officials, legislators, and residents from the area have begun pushing for movement on Beacon Hill, said state Representative Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat responsible for repeatedly filing what is now called bill H869, or the “muni-choice bill.’’ It would grant cities and towns the option, under state authority, to form a municipal utility by making it possible for them to acquire electric wires and other assets at a fair price from the current investor-owned utilities.

The passage of such a bill would mark the first step in the multilayered efforts necessary to extract a town from its established reliance on private electric utilities. Change would first require legislative action; then economic and engineering feasibility studies; the accumulation of necessary infrastructure, such as electric wires and poles; securing long-term power supplies; as well as operating and improving the system.

National Grid offers a different opinion. Communities are “best served by a company with established practices, resources, and programs that can serve them in an evolving, challenging energy environment,’’ said Deborah Drew, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Irene was a storm of unprecedented magnitude, said Drew, affecting the utility’s infrastructure. Nearly 430,000 of the utility’s customers lost power the night of the storm and two-thirds of these had it restored within two days, she noted.

“We are proud of what we have built - a leader in providing electric service, energy efficiency programs, and products to customers,’’ she said. National Grid has been in business in Massachusetts for a century, Drew said, formed by aggregating former municipal electric companies.

While Massachusetts is home to 41 municipal utilities, no new ones have been established since the early 20th century, illustrating the difficulty of wresting control of coveted infrastructure from the utilities, which, in turn, operate as monopolies. This year, NStar spent more than $70,000 opposing the municipal utility bill and other legislation; National Grid spent $25,000.

Such lobbying efforts are an obstacle to legislative change, said Patrick Mehr, spokesman for the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice, a coalition working on this issue for 10 years.

The muni-choice bill has languished on Beacon Hill for nearly a decade and is currently sitting in the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy.

“It is very disturbing that something that seems to be a common-sense bill is taking such a long time to make happen,’’ said Kaufman. “I don’t know why the bill has stalled and I don’t know what role lobbying plays in that stall. I do know there are people in communities across the Commonwealth with problems with utility bills and electric service because of our inability to pass this bill.’’

In the wake of Irene, the state’s Department of Public Utilities opened a review of National Grid and NStar’s Emergency Response Plan. The state attorney general’s office requested information from all of the major utilities on their efforts both prior to and during storm restoration, including communications with municipal officials.

“Every major storm offers an opportunity for lessons learned and for us to see what we could have done better,’’ said National Grid’s Drew, referring to the inquiries. “We also will undertake an evaluation of our own performance, including seeking feedback from the affected communities in our service area. Our goal, as always, is to provide our customers with the safe and reliable service they expect.’’

But expressed good intentions from National Grid do nothing for Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi. Just two months ago, National Grid was ordered to pay a $2.2 million fine by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, the consequence of an investigation into the utility’s response during a Dec. 26, 2010, winter storm.

Despite mandated promises to improve service, said Vinchesi, National Grid has proven a second time that it is incapable of addressing large-scale needs during weather-related events. Scituate is waiting on the attorney general’s post-Irene findings rather than exploring municipal control of electric utilities, but the desire for local control is a natural impulse, she said.

“We’re dealing with bureaucracy and a utility that in reality we have no control over,’’ said Vinchesi. “When you really need them, where are they?’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.