Want to Ease The Next Boston Blackout?

Call me a sucker for the effectiveness of market forces to shape behavior. Or call me a Republican in Massachusetts. But I think I’ll scream if I hear my Democratic friends explain to me again how more regulation by agencies that are captives of the industries they regulate is a good thing.

You want to reduce the frequency and duration of power outages in Massachusetts? First you have to make it more expensive for utilities to engage in the business practices that lead to blackouts or delay repairs. For utility executives who answer to boards and shareholders on a quarterly basis for greater profitability, the name of the game is cutting operating costs for infrastructure and maintenance. If that amounts to playing Russian Roulette with the weather in a hope that tree limbs won’t fall or deferring replacement of aging infrastructure with a prayer that it will fail on the next guy’s watch, higher profits make for happy investors. For investors, the measure of success is profit now, this quarter, this year — not some vague expectation of future value. And there’s certainly no value in good corporate citizenship in Massachusetts by far-flung investors in other states or other countries.

Our utilities in Massachusetts are operated by monopolies. They can do a great job or a terrible job, but you’re basically stuck with them. And they know it. And they also spend millions of dollars to hire an army of lobbyists to make legislative friends in high places to ensure that efforts to increase competition and accountability die in committee. If you keep doing what you’ve already done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve already got. And we’ve got a rustic and rickety electrical grid in Massachusetts that somehow manages to deliver power at twice the cost to consumers compared to other states where we compete for jobs. And it’s very profitable. So here’s two things you can do about it:

First, call your State Representative and State Senator and demand they email the House Speaker and Senate President (and send you a copy of the email) to release House No. 2839, the “Power Outage Rebate Bill” from the Joint Committee on Telecom, Utilities and Energy by the March 21 deadline for all pending legislation to be reported out of committee this year. For good measure, call every member of the Joint Committee and demand they report the Power Outage Rebate Bill favorably to allow a debate and vote on the merits. The Power Outage Rebate Bill will amend the state Consumer Protection Law to require utilities to rebate you two days’ cost of your electricity, based on your previous monthly bill, for each day you are without electrical power. The purpose of the legislation is to create a huge financial incentive for utilities to avoid extended power outages that would trigger the rebate requirement. Put yourself in the shoes of the beleaguered utility CEO: when a board member calls you at your private beach resort and starts squawking about the high cost of replacing power substation equipment, you can point out how much money you’ll save and how much risk you’ll avoid by not triggering the Power Outage Rebate. And less cost and lower risk equals greater profit. As part of the Consumer Protection law, the Power Outage Rebate bill could be enforced at no cost to the state by consumer lawyers who already use the law to enforce fair practices by industry.

Second, have your local Board of Selectmen or City Council call the Massachusetts Municipal Association or my office at the State House and ask for a copy of the model Utility Line Tree Maintenance Bylaw. This model bylaw (called an “ordinance” for city governments) would require utilities to trim tree branches along power lines that are located on town or city property, such as the public rights of way along streets where most power lines are located. If approved by your local Town Meeting or City Council, failure by utilities to keep power lines clear of tree branches could result in monetary fines. And if the utilities refused to pay the fines, the city or town could simply offset the value of such fines from any costs of electricity owed by the municipality. Local governments tend to be more responsive to angry citizens than state governments. And utility lobbyists, who rule the roost in the State House, have zero sway at the local level over citizens who are tired of spoiled food and cold, dark nights.

Both of these proposals are pending and possible. Both use the language of money, which is the native tongue of utility executives. And both can become law if you take just five minutes, right now, and let people in local and state government know that this issue matters to you as a voter.

Dan Winslow is a State Representative from the 9th Norfolk House District. You can reach him at danwinslow.com. He does not accept political contributions from utilities. And utilities haven’t offered any.