Business Commentaries

Downtown View: Power Problems

Who can remember which utility NStar provides and which utility National Grid provides? No one? That’s what I thought. Sometimes we long for yesteryear when Boston Edison and Boston Gas supplied exactly what they said they did.

But never mind that. Whoever supplies our electricity in the downtown never fails. (It turns out to be NStar in my household. I can’t be sure about yours.) I have lived on my street for 40 years. During that time, the electricity has never gone out, even during hurricanes. That’s because the lines supplying my house are buried.

Well, maybe. It’s not just because they are buried, said Michael Durand, a spokesman for NStar. It’s because in dense neighborhoods like ours in downtown Boston, redundancies and backups keep things going. You might never know that a problem had occurred because the minute one supply line goes out, another takes its place.

Aha, you are going to say. That’s a crock. Remember last spring in the Back Bay when a piece of equipment blew and blocks of the Back Bay suffered for days without power?

That’s true, but such outages are rare compared to those in Massachusetts suburban and rural communities, said Durand.

NStar and National Grid get hammered by critics when the power goes out because bringing it back takes too long. The companies also attract complaints when they cut down or trim trees to reduce the chances of limbs taking out power lines. Then they have to deal with the attorney general’s threats to fine them—Martha Coakley last July sought more then $16 million in fines from National Grid for its performance in last year’s October snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene. Mayor Menino demanded that NStar reimburse customers for the losses they suffered during the Back Bay outage last spring, and NStar did pay $10,000 to low-income people who lost food.

With all these problems, wouldn’t the power companies like to make life easier on themselves?

They could put in more redundancies in lower density areas, and Durand said they are already doing this. But burying the lines is where they could really make a difference. Such systems have an impressive advantage over overhead lines.

The Edison Electric Institute, a group representing the industry, found that “the underground electrical system is shown to contribute significantly fewer interruptions to the average customer outage experience.” According to a graph in a report EEI published, customers with overhead lines averaged outages about 14 times more than customers with underground lines.

But burying the lines is expensive—Durand puts it between $1 and $2 million a mile for NStar alone.

Underground installation costs on average about five times, sometimes up to ten times, more than overhead lines. And the utility companies are not entirely at fault for relying so much on overhead lines. It’s the customers.

In Massachusetts, if a town wants to bury its utility lines, the utility doesn’t pay for it. The customers in that town will pay, either through a surcharge on their utility bills or a surcharge on their property tax approved in town meeting.

Southborough, for example, this year investigated the costs of burying the utilities on Main Street during the state’s redesign of the road. But the $8 million price tag was too much for residents to stomach.

Even if communities decide to go ahead, the utility bureaucracy makes state government seem like a well oiled machine. Electrical lines share poles with the telephone company, the cable television company and sometimes street lights. A few years ago Duxbury officials complained bitterly about the time and energy it took to get all these entities to work together to make those lines go away.

Even if you bury the lines, the electricity can go out anyway if a piece of equipment fails or floods. If an underground system fails, it usually takes longer to fix, said Durand. But the EEI partially contradicted him when it pronounced that, “This data set demonstrated that the average customer experiences significantly fewer minutes of outage from underground system outage events.” Sorry about the way the corporate world writes a sentence.

Interpreting this language, I think they mean to say that customers with underground lines don’t have the problems that customers with overhead lines do.

One problem for underground lines is that they are fed by regional overhead transmission or distribution lines like the ones atop the pylons marching through New Hampshire from Hydro-Quebec. If an accumulation of ice or a geomagnetic storm takes them out, the buried lines stop working too.

Nevertheless there is an aesthetic advantage and better service if the lines are underground. But unless communities are willing to spend a fortune burying the lines, they will have to put up with unsightly poles and wires and inconvenient and outraging power outages.

Aren’t you glad you live in a place that has already buried the lines?

One Reply to “Downtown View: Power Problems

  1. Ha…when the man hole covers blew a few Summers ago, my house went without power for 5 days and I was not allowed back into the house during that time.

    I’m not a huge NSTAR fan.

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