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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Seeing the light

We take it for granted until it goes away. Apparently so do city and state officials.

The massive power failure in Boston's Back Bay is focusing the spotlight -- again -- the operations of the state's large electric companies. TV reporters are declaring "it's taking a little bit longer than expected" to restore power to the last of the 20,000 customers who lost electricity Tuesday night.

For anyone who has lived through Tropical Storm Irene or any of the other natural disaster, the refrain is familiar, though some may substitute National Grid for NSTAR. And that doesn't even take into account the day-to-day indignities suffered at the hands of our supposed regulated utilities.

The hard and cold fact is that while the rates the companies can charge customers are regulated (hard as it is to believe), there is very little oversight over the nuts and bolts of the systems that bring electricity and natural gas to our homes. Says State Sen. Mark Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat:
“There’s a huge investment that needs to take place across the system to bring about a smarter and more efficient power grid in general. What we’d like to know is, what happened and how can we prevent something like this from taking place again?”
It's hard for a layperson to judge what, if anything could be corrected in the complex web of transformers and cables that power a city. It's certainly harder than knowing a transformer and wires on poles are vulnerable on heavy wind or snow.

But untrained ears do perk up when you learn that the massive transformers in question are, in some cases, 40 years old or more. And we are all familiar with the concept that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Likewise, we know that maintenance is always the first thing to slide, whether it's in our own home or in large companies that pay close attention to their bottom lines.

It's only logical that public inspectors keep a closer eye on the public utilities on which we rely for power and heat. And for anyone skeptical about the ability of government to handle anything like this, let's recall how quickly the much-maligned Massachusetts Water Resources Authority got the water flowing after a massive main break in 2010.

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