Officials Want Answers About Latest Back Bay Blackout

Councilor Mike Ross filed for a hearing to get information from NStar about the recurring problem.

City Councilor Mike Ross wants to figure out why one of the busiest neighborhoods in Boston has experienced another blackout.

On Saturday, the Back Bay was hit with yet another major outage, putting tens of thousands of people in the dark, just 13 months after a transformer exploded in the same area that left businesses without electricity for two full days and created what Ross called a “tremendous disruption” to everyday operations in the bustling neighborhood he represents.

Although the latest blackout didn’t have the same devastating financial impacts brought on by the power outage in March 2012, Ross says he doesn’t want businesses and residents to feel as though they need to “get used to” the problem arising regularly in the summer season. “We need to really pay attention to what is happening underground, and we need to have a plan moving forward,” Ross says. On Monday, Ross, a mayoral candidate, filed a request for a hearing with the City Council to examine what NStar is doing to rectify the power failures.

Following last year’s outage, NStar was ordered to make repairs to the faulty substation that caused the failures and issue a full report to city officials about what had happened.

Sunday’s blackout left 12,000 NStar customers without power after a cable that connects a transformer to the electrical grid at the Scotia Street substation, the same substation at the center of last year’s outage, ultimately failed. NStar has been doing work at the station to ensure these problems don’t occur in the future, promising a “brand new” system for the neighborhoods it services. According to NStar Spokesman Mike Durand, since the failure in 2012, the company has been working on the upgrade project, which will be completed by next week.

The last part of the upgrade—which is now being worked on—is to a transformer that is currently out of service. There are two transformers in that substation, Durand says. At 3:15 a.m. Sunday, a cable that is connected to the transformer that was in operation failed. “Under normal circumstances, because of the redundancy, when that failed it would have switched to the other transformer. It would not have been a power outage if the other one was on. It would have automatically switched to the other transformer. But because we haven’t upgraded the second transformer, it didn’t switch,” Durand says.

Due to a new contingency plan to handle these outages, which was put in place following the 2012 blackout, NStar was able to get power back on early Monday morning, thanks to backup cables underground that were installed.

But Ross wants more answers about what the work entails. “It has taken a year for the transformer to be repaired. It doesn’t really make sense to me. I’m concerned, to be honest,” Ross says. “I am held accountable regularly, by the people I serve, and we need to hold NStar accountable as well, for the customers they serve. This is not OK that the company we rely [on] is continuing to fail. [This blackout] wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it still disrupted some businesses.”

Some businesses contacted along Boylston Street that were impacted in the early morning Sunday declined to comment. However, Megan Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, said a few storeowners she spoke with during the ordeal weren’t too pleased. “Businesses are upset. They are concerned. They want clear information, and they want to make sure we have a plan going forward to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen,” she says. “It’s very difficult that this happened this weekend. Businesses are weary. It’s been hard to get some wind in our sails.” Restaurants and eateries on Boylston Street are still trying to recover from the loss of revenue caused by the Marathon bombings as well, she says.

With the current repairs to the Scotia Street substation scheduled to be finished by June 18, Mainzer-Cohen has confidence, she says, that this could be the last of the blackouts the Back Bay sees for a while. “We want to make sure the message goes out, loud and clear, that it will be fully repaired by June 18. I want to make sure that our neighborhood—I don’t want Back Bay to have a reputation where there are always these blackouts. There have been subsequent events since then, but it’s going to be fully repaired, and I’m confident this won’t happen again. It’s my understanding that in the last 25 years, this was about one of three blackouts, according to the books at NStar.”