Ipswich, Middleton electric departments put power back in customers' hands
- Jan 17, 2020 3:25 pm GMT
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A fire atop a utility pole at the intersection of East and County streets in Ipswich knocked out power to most of the Northeast section of town on a recent Saturday. Two Ipswich Electric Light Department (IELD) trucks with cherry pickers arrived, and crews restored power within hours.
Such a response is one of the reasons towns like Middleton and Ipswich continue to own their own electric light departments.
"We're basically owned by the residents of Middleton," said Middleton Electric Light Department (MELD) Manager Michael Cloutier. "It's public power."
That puts power back in the hands of residents in more ways than one.
IELD Manager Jonathan Blair and Cloutier both see three main reasons communities keep their electric departments: Affordability, reliability and flexibility.
Ipswich and Middleton are two of 41 of the 351 cities and towns across the commonwealth that own their electric departments.
Many of the other 310 communities, including Boxford, Topsfield, Hamilton and Wenham, use National Grid, an investor-owned corporation, to supply their electricity.
"We're in a fortunate position," Blair said. " These communities 100 years ago had the foresight to establish their own power plants. It was a simple electric grid. The loads were small and manageable. Now it's very complex."
Communities could spend millions of dollars to start their own power companies today and, as Blair pointed out, infrastructure costs such as schools and public safety buildings usually go first in voters' minds.
Ipswich and Middleton both charge less for electricity than National Grid. Ipswich, Blair said, charges about 35 percent less. Middleton, which has a larger commercial base than Ipswich, charges about 42 percent less.
Many kinds of charges are included in the monthly bills for all electric customers. For instance, both Middleton and National Grid include transmission charges, distribution charges and a customer charge, among other charges. However, when all the charges are rolled up, Middleton residents right now are paying 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour while National Grid customers are paying 27.3 cents per kilowatt hour.
"The mission is completely different than what they do," Cloutier said.
Local electric departments have one mission, to provide safe, affordable and reliable power.
"We don't have shareholders that we pay dividends to," Cloutier said.
"Most people don't consider where their power comes from,' Blair said. "They just know whether their lights are on or off."
While all electric utilities in Massachusetts are regulated by the state Department of Public Utilities, municipal electric departments have a lot of local control, Cloutier said. For instance, they perform regular maintenance and upgrading of infrastructure and employ linemen who get to know the community.
"They don't need a GPS to get to an outage," Cloutier said.
"National Grid may not be focussed on a single community," Blair said. "They may not be aware of problems as keenly as we are. We're built to serve the town. National Grid, it's kind of like an airline flight. Once in a while they oversell a flight. They maintain some percentage capacity to fix problems. But when you get a big storm, you're overwhelmed, over capacity."
Time and again, when storms knock power out across the North Shore, communities with their own electric departments are back up and running sooner than are those with National Grid.
In 2017, an October storm knocked out power in Boxford and basically paralyzed the town. It took days for National Grid to get boots on the ground. In February 2018, Boxford Town Administrator Alan Benson testified at a Department of Public Utilities hearing that the company didn't even perform in accordance with its own emergency-response protocols.
National Grid counters by saying its larger resources could be an asset in a power emergency.
"Having access to resources from other parts of a large utility is a tremendous advantage," Christine Milligan, principal program manager for National Grid's media relations in Massachusetts. "On several occasions in recent years, National Grid has been able to bring in additional staff from other parts of the company or enlist help from other utilities located outside the affected area for storm restoration."
Municipal electric departments, Cloutier said, have the best of both worlds. They have crews on staff but can also pull in additional assistance when needed.
Longtime Middleton resident Sandy Rubchinuk said in an email to the Chronicle & Transcript, "The huge benefit of MELD is they are right on any problems, we don't have to wait in line behind the entire state or even other states. Also they are very proactive about tree trimming and pole replacing. I love our electrical dept."
Locally owned municipal electric companies have the flexibility to reflect the concerns and values of the communities that own them, and they can control their own energy portfolios.
Ipswich places emphasis on reducing the community's carbon footprint -- the amount of carbon it uses to produce electricity -- so its municipal light department emphasizes solar power, which generates no carbon pollution.
Cloutier said Middleton has also placed an emphasis on reducing greenhouse gases and has tailored its energy portfolio. MELD has invested in renewable energy projects, including wind farms in Maine and hydro plants in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine.
"Other communities may, say, not be as concerned with the environment. They want low rates. Other communities may want reliability," Blair said. "Because we answer to customers, not shareholders, we can tailor the system to customers' needs."
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