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Give NSTAR a break

October 31, 2011

As of noon today, NSTAR reports that 20% of Walpole is still without power, which is down from a high of almost 36% yesterday. NSTAR estimates all power will be restored by Wednesday evening.

Weather observers are predicting a very snowy winter this year, and Walpole got its first taste with an unusual autumn snowstorm this past weekend. Many homes in Walpole lost power, and schools were canceled in what could be the earliest snow day of a school year in Walpole history (ignoring the fact that the first day of school had already been pushed back two days because of Hurricane Irene in September.)

This has been an interesting year weather-wise for the Massachusetts area. In January, the state had an unusual, even for winter, stretch of four snow storms over the course of four weeks, and in May the region experienced an astounding tornado (Walpole was spared, but still saw a tornado warning in effect.) In August, the state experienced an earthquake and the effects of Hurricane Irene. Irene put much of the area in the dark. And last weekend, the state was hit by a snowstorm that no one expected this early in the season. Fall doesn’t even end until a month-and-a-half from now, but it’s already looking like it could be an interesting winter to end a wild-weather year.

My house in Walpole lost power for both Hurricane Irene and for the most recent snowstorm (my college, by the way, was barely affected by either storm.) Losing your power, in a word, sucks. I know. I hated it. I couldn’t charge my computer or phone, I had no lights, I had no hot water, and I was basically limited to what I could do in the daytime. I was lucky I didn’t have any medical equipment that needed electricity. After the hurricane, my part of the neighborhood was one of the last to get power even though I’m near downtown and even though people down my street had power.

But I don’t really understand why everyone was so quick to blame NSTAR for the power outages. NSTAR, on the grand scale of things, has been an incredibly reliable power utility. This is perhaps the first time in years that we have had wild weather of this sort, and this is the first time in years that this area has even seen such bad power outages. What do you expect after a massive hurricane and a massive early-season snowstorm? It takes a lot to run an extensive power grid, and for the most part NSTAR has delivered power to the area without interruption for a long time (I can’t remember the last time we had a power outage.)

Too often, we take things like electricity for granted (even though it’s only a little more than a century old.) But this year has been unusual when it comes to weather, and I’m willing to give NSTAR a break. We didn’t have these types of widespread power outages in January when we had four snow storms in four weeks, which is an indication that perhaps NSTAR is better than we are making them out to be with the latest storm.

We live in a country that uses antiquated ways to get power, a nation where the government seems more interested in spending trillions of dollars on invading other countries instead of burying our utility lines and making our country more energy-efficient overall (I still hope to see the day when every public school in America has a solar panel, but that won’t happen if politicians keep insisting we need to spend trillions more on a bloated and wasteful defense budget that is already twice the size of our nearest military competitor, just as an example.)

There are some legitimate reasons to criticize NSTAR. You can criticize them for not communicating enough with local officials or with residents. You can criticize them for perhaps underestimating the potential impact of the storms beforehand, but didn’t we all underestimate the storms? I certainly didn’t expect the most recent snow storm to be as bad as meteorologists were predicting – the meteorologists have been wrong before and it’s only October. True, NSTAR has a monopoly on the power business so you’d expect them to be better in the customer service area given that they are the only utility in town, but as utilities go, I don’t think NSTAR is that bad.

No one ever thanks NSTAR for providing power when the weather is great. Even with great weather, massive power outages can occur. Just a couple months ago, there was a large swath of the southwestern United States that had a power outage, considered the largest blackout in California history. That happened because of some technical problems with that region’s power grid, not because of any specific weather event. NSTAR, on the other hand, along with the other regional utilities, has never had a massive blackout incident like that, at least in my memory, so perhaps a thank you is in order.

So let me be the first to say it:

Thank you, NSTAR for delivering electricity to our area. You make our lives easier.

If your power goes out, it’s tough. But try to make the best of it. The Romans seemed to survive for a long time without electricity, and the entire American Revolution and Civil War was fought without a single electric lightbulb. Isn’t that amazing?

I also want to say that I am pleased that the Town of Walpole didn’t “cancel” trick-or-treating as other towns have done. Trick-or-treating is a private activity, and it is not under the management of the government. The towns that are canceling trick-or-treating are interfering in a private activity, and the conservative voice inside me is screaming. Too often, we depend on government to tell us to do things or not do things supposedly for our safety. That should be up to the individual to decide. Canceling an entire private activity also generates mass confusion, because people may not know that trick-or-treating is canceled and be in disarray tonight and the night the government supposedly rescheduled it to.

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