NSTAR still working on JP blackouts

June 27, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Years after electrical service in most of Jamaica Plain was improved by massive system upgrades, at least two subneighborhoods are still suffering blackouts as they wait their turn.

NSTAR, the power company, is working on the final round of upgrades, according to spokesperson Michael Durand. That work could take another six months. It was originally scheduled to be done sometime last year.

Severe blackouts plagued JP in 2003-2005 until the upgraded system went into effect. The work included converting to a higher-power electric line and reorganizing the grid so that a power outage in one small area doesn’t cause a neighborhood-wide crash. NSTAR said the old system could not handle the rise of power-sucking home electronics such as computers. It appears that aging equipment was also an issue.

By 2006, most of JP was upgraded and blackouts have been rare. But the so-called conversion work is continuing in some pockets of the neighborhood. Those areas include the Washington Street area between Green Street and Egleston Square; and part of Forest Hills between Tower Street and the Arborway/Morton Street.

Blackouts—some accidental, some planned by NSTAR—remain common in those areas.

The planned outages included upgrade work as well as testing of circuit breakers in preparation for summer demands, Durand said. Repairs to accident-caused outages often require planned outages, too.

“These outages should have been brief, and this proactive testing helps us to find any potential issues before they arise,” Durand said of the circuit breaker testing, which was conducted earlier this year.

Amy Nesta, an Orchard Hill Road resident, told the Gazette last week that her part of Forest Hills has been hit with at least seven power outages this year—including three within a 24-hour period. They ranged from a long outage during a January storm to a blackout in the sweltering heat of June 10.

Weather-related outages can be unavoidable. Durand said the June 10 outage was caused by NSTAR rapidly switching its power supply around as everyone turned on electricity-gulping air conditioners. That outage affected a much larger area, including parts of South and Centre streets as well as the Gazette office on Harris Avenue.

Still, areas still awaiting upgrades seem to receive more weather-related blackouts. “Every time the wind blows more than 30 miles an hour, I’m ready to flee my house,” said Nesta, who has an infant to worry about.

Then there are the planned outages. Nesta said she receives planned outage notices from NSTAR, but they don’t explain the big picture. She said she has lived in JP only about two years and had not heard of the system upgrade work.

“We keep getting letters in the mail and voicemail recordings saying, ‘There are going to be improvements in your area’…We don’t really know what that means,” she said. Repeating a common complaint, Nesta added that planned outages often do not happen at the scheduled time, such as one that was supposed to happen June 17.

Durand said those outages are related to the conversion work.

NSTAR’s communication has long drawn complaints from residents and elected officials, including the Mayor’s Office. The company did not even announce the existence of the upgrade work until the Gazette began publishing regular reports of power outages, seeking an explanation for each one.

Since then, NSTAR has created a sophisticated phone system that will call customers back with an explanation for power outages, among other features.

For Nesta, there is a simple bottom line: “It’s only June. Can we expect 10 more blackouts?”

While it’s impossible to put an exact number on it, the general answer is almost certainly yes. Durand noted that the upgrade work has required some planned outages.

On the other hand, the upgrades will probably make the electrical system as stable there as it is in the rest of JP, where a brief outage once a year might be the norm.

Residents should report all power outages to NSTAR at 1-800-592-2000.