Municipal Choice: A Power Play In The Bay State

By Adam Reilly

Oct. 26, 2011

This story was done in conjunction with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, an investigative-reporting collaborative based at Boston University.

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 24 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

HUDSON, Mass., — Two years ago nearly a million people lost electricity, some of them for weeks, after a devastating ice storm hit Massachusetts. This past August, Tropical Storm Irene caused another crippling round of power outages. But in sleepy Hudson, the damage done by Irene was undone within a day.

"That Sunday night," recalled Yakov Levin, general manager of Hudson Light & Power, "by midnight, 99 percent of our customers had their power back."

Levin credits that to his colleagues. Because they know Hudson inside-out, the town was able to rebound faster than communities served by big utilities like NStar and National Grid. Hudson Light & Power has provided that town with electricity for more than a century.

"Our employees maintain service lines that feed their houses, their parents' houses, their friends' houses," Levin said. "They grew up in town; they know every street."

Levin added that because Hudson Light & Power is accountable to the town instead of to investors, there's no pressure to make a profit, which lets the people of Hudson save money, too.

"We don't have to report to a corporate headquarters," he said. "We report to our customers. All they expect from us is good service and lowest possible rates."


Massachusetts Secretary of State, Lobbying Disclosure Reports

Now a bill under review at the State House would make it easier for communities to follow Hudson's lead by forming their own power companies. Current state law essentially allows big utilities to veto any such move. But House Bill 869 would change that, and let up to three communities annually switch to the municipal model.

Supporters say that would mean better service — and lower rates.

"Every NStar customer pays 23 percent more for the same electricity than the average municipal utility charges in the Commonwealth," said Patrick Mehr of the Mass. Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.

The bill's prospects are murky at best, however. Similar legislation has languished on Beacon Hill for a decade. Mehr contends that's because the big utilities have so much political clout.

"NStar has been spending the equivalent of $100,000 over a six month period to defeat this legislation," said Merh. "Our budget is zero."

Mehr may have a point. A recent investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that the major utilities have spent nearly $200,000 on State House lobbying in the first half of 2011 alone. They've also showered key politicians with money, like former energy committee co-chair Mike Morrissey, who got $27,000 over four years, and his counterpart Brian Dempsey, who received $14,000 in roughly the same period.

Dempsey, who's now the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says those donations only represent a small portion of the money he raised during that period, and that his skepticism about previous versions of the so-called "muni choice" bill stemmed from substantive concerns.

Municipal-choice supporters like Patrick Mehr are skeptical of such explanations. But even though they think the political deck is stacked against them, they're holding out hope.

"We don't believe that in America in the 21st century there ought to be any kind of monopoly," Mehr said.

NStar didn't respond to Greater Boston's request for comment. In a statement, National Grid said that when it comes to rates and customer service, its size is actually an asset.

For their part, though, devotees of the municipal model insist it's the only way to go.

"I've seen our crews go along the street getting high fives from residents," said Levin, Hudson Light & Power's GM.

And that's not something most Massachusetts residents see every day.

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