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Municipal utilities shine in storm

Outages were resolved quickly

NStar worker Bob Kelland was part of a crew that arrived to restore service from a downed pole near a mall off Cambridge Street in Burlington after the storm. NStar worker Bob Kelland was part of a crew that arrived to restore service from a downed pole near a mall off Cambridge Street in Burlington after the storm. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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Wellesley and other towns in the electric power business were beacons of light during the outages that left thousands of homes across the western suburbs in the dark last week.

While Natick, Sudbury, Framingham, and other communities struggled with power failures that dragged on through the week, all the lights were back on in a matter of hours in Wellesley, Belmont, and Concord.

The three towns run their own municipal electric utilities, complete with crews ready to make repairs at a moment’s notice, in contrast to the majority of communities in the western suburbs, whose power is provided by the utility companies NStar and National Grid.

The disparity did not go unnoticed in Natick, where officials were looking enviously over at Wellesley and grappling with extensive outages days after tropical storm Irene swept through the area.

“That’s almost a week for some of these people,’’ said Martha White, Natick’s town administrator. “We are extremely disappointed.’’

The swift restoration of power was not due to any fluke of nature - some of the worst outages caused by Irene were in the western suburbs, said Richard Joyce, director of the Wellesley Municipal Light Plant.

Rather, intense daily planning and preparation beforehand paid off when the big storm hit last Sunday, Joyce contends.

Roughly 15 percent of the 10,000 customers of Wellesley’s municipal power company lost their electricity during the storm. All but 40 homes had their lights back by late that evening, with electricity back in the rest by Monday morning, Joyce said.

Wellesley power company officials met daily leading up to the storm to discuss plans. Other town departments, including fire, police and public works, were also at the table to help coordinate, Joyce said.

All three customer service reps were on the phones Sunday taking damage reports, while the engineers were sent to an isolated building to map out the outages and methodically direct repair crews, he noted.

Some of it was a simple math game, matching up outage reports with various key points on the electrical grid and dispatching repair crews. But the isolation was needed to help the engineers concentrate away from the ringing phones, he said.

“As soon as a crew is done with one outage, they are on their way to the next one,’’ Joyce said. “There is no down time.’’

Over in Concord, power was fully restored by 7:30 p.m. Sunday, said David Wood, director of the Concord Municipal Light Plant. Roughly 675 of the municipally run utility’s 7,600 customers lost power during the storm.

Local knowledge also was key, with crews knowing both the layout of streets and how the local electric grid is laid, Wood said.

“Our guys are very good - they know the [electric grid] system very well,’’ Wood said. “We have grown to expect a good response time and they haven’t let us down.’’

And it was a similar story in Belmont, where roughly 1,000 of 10,000 customers in town lost electricity during the storm, said James Palmer, general manager/chief executive of the Belmont Municipal Light Department.

Despite the outage, all the lights were on by 11:30 p.m. Sunday and the average outage lasted just an hour, he said.

“I guess we are very grass-roots,’’ Palmer said. “The way we run our operations here, it’s very similar to the way the larger utilities used to run their operations years ago.’’

But in towns depending on the region’s big electric utilities to make repairs, a much different picture has emerged.

One of the biggest complaints of officials in Natick and Sudbury was a lack of communication by NStar that began during the height of the storm.

The utility sent out an e-mail saying it would no longer take priority lists of streets to fix first from public safety officials. The note outraged local officials, with William Miles, fire chief in Sudbury, describing himself as “furious.’’

Michael Durand, an NStar spokesman, acknowledged the e-mail, noting the utility had decided it could no longer take calls on its emergency line from public safety officials about specific outages, instead asking that the customers involved contact NStar directly on its 800 number. But he added that NStar took emergency calls and information throughout the storm from public safety officials and has continued to do so.

Miles also bemoaned a general lack of communication. He said he wasn’t able to connect with anyone from NStar until Monday night. As of late Tuesday afternoon, he still didn’t know how many people had lost power in town or how many crews were at work in town.

“I couldn’t talk to anybody. I was here all day Sunday and all day yesterday, and I saw only one trouble [repair] truck,’’ Miles said Tuesday.

The NStar spokesman acknowledged the delays, but ascribed them to the avalanche of hundreds of thousands of calls that came in during and after the storm.

“Chief Miles expressed that same frustration to us earlier this week and we respect his concern,’’ Durand wrote. “As with all storms of this magnitude, we will evaluate our response to Irene internally and with local emergency officials to determine what worked well and what could have worked better.’’

As of Tuesday, NStar crews had finally descended in force upon Natick after being hard to find during the storm and the day after, White said. As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, 12 percent of NStar customers in Natick, or nearly 2,000, were still without power. That number dropped to 3.3 percent, or 544, by late Wednesday afternoon.

One third of NStar’s customers in Sudbury, or 2,256, were still without power Tuesday morning, dropping to 17 percent, or 1,173, by late Wednesday afternoon.

Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that matching up the performance of large utilities with small, town-owned power companies is “really not an apples-to-apples comparison.’’

However, the performance of the municipal power companies has impressed residents in other towns.

In fact, White, the Natick town administrator, said she has heard suggestions in recent days that Natick take a page from neighboring Wellesley and get into the power business itself.

She understands the sentiment. But the investment needed to get into the business today, compared with when some towns first started their own electric departments decades ago, makes it impractical.

“A half-dozen people have suggested it to me in the last 48 hours,’’ White said Tuesday. “This event has certainly caused people to ask that question.’’

NStar’s Durand said he did not have information showing where all the company’s trucks were on particular days. In addition, some repair work was done by remote control, so it would not have been visible to residents.

The company’s initial response is to assess the damage and then start tackling the largest outages first.

The big utility had 250,000 customers without power on Monday morning - by noon on Thursday it was down to 12,600, he said.

“This is the first time we’ve declared what’s referred to as Level 5 of our Emergency Response Plan, with Level 5 being severe damage is expected,’’ Durand wrote. “The level of damage to our equipment across our entire system was unprecedented.’’


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