Highlights of the Concord Municipal Light Plant’s History
Under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Chapter 370 of the Acts of 1891 allowed a town like Concord to "engage in the manufacture and distribution of gas and electricity." Passage required two consecutive Town Meeting votes in the affirmative by two-thirds of the voters using written or printed ballots.
Because of growing dissatisfaction with the operation and cost of gas street lights, the need for a new sewer pumping plant, and the possible economies of considering a combined electric and sewer power station, the Committees on Electric Lighting and Sewerage recommended the first of the necessary two votes. This would begin the evaluation process of forming a Town-owned electric plant.
The Town Meeting on March 30, 1896 voted in favor of the proposal. The Town Meeting in 1897 voted in favor for the required second time but deferred any action because of the estimated cost of more than $125,000 to construct the combined power station.
On April 4, 1898, Town Meeting voters finally decided to take control of Concord’s electric service, voting to establish a Light Plant governed by a three-member Light Board of local citizens. Richard S. Barrett was chosen to chair the new board, which also included William Wheeler and Prescott Keyes. A Sewer Commission was also established at the same time. The Light Board Chairman was given an annual stipend of $75, while Board members each received $15 per year.
First priority was street lighting, and voters quickly met twice to consider "burying" the necessary wires. They finally decided on July 23, 1898 to support an overhead system of wires because it was less expensive. Before the summer was over, a $35,000 bond issue was sold to raise funds to build a combination power house and sewer station, today known as the Red Brick Building located on Keyes Road.
In 1899, the Boston firm of Stone and Webster was hired to engineer and construct the power plant. Later that year, Charles S. Davis, formerly with the Boston & Maine Railroad, was named the Plant’s first manager. At that time, both "commercial and domestic" customers were receiving some electricity for lighting – but only from dusk until dawn.
On Feb. 2, 1900, the Power House began generating electricity for the people of Concord. As a result, electric rates were "far below average" according to the Light Board. A minimum cost of 75 cents per month for electricity, "carefully used," was estimated to equal the cost of kerosene for lighting. Policy was set to furnish electricity "at cost" to all customers, while the Town would pay all street lighting costs. Electricity for street lighting was billed at 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.
In 1901, Alpert W. Lee became the new utility’s second manager. In that same year, the Town Report noted that on December 8, the Light Plant was "obliged" to shut down their engines for a short time because the boilers were "foaming, caused by the greasy and dirty condition of the waters of the Assabet," which was used as part of the engines’ cooling systems.Electric service was becoming a popular convenience, and the Light Plant issued a series of bonds throughout the decade to finance construction.
Town Meeting voted to create the position of Inspector of Wires on April 2, 1906, and William Lincoln Smith was named the first Inspector. By 1907, there were 38 miles of street lighting throughout Concord, and "breaking street lamps" was the ninth most common crime, based on arrests. While the modern convenience of electricity was sweeping the town, automobiles were still a rarity.
That same year, the Light Plant spent $5.50 at Tuttle’s Stable for "horse hire." And while the Town learned to enjoy the benefits of electricity, its hazards were also experienced in 1907 when there was a "slight fire" at the Middlesex School caused by faulty electrical wiring. The first rate reduction took place in April 1907, from 12 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, with a 10 percent penalty for those who failed to pay their bills promptly. That same year, the town of Lincoln asked Concord to provide electricity, but it was believed that legislative action was required to comply.
"Our lines are in excellent condition; for this reason winter storms have affected the service but little," reads the 1907 Town Report. The next year, there were 535 meters on the system.
By 1910, the Light Plant’s revenue totaled $33,326.30, and the Town had 862 street lights covering some 45 miles. Town Meeting voted unanimously in 1910 for a new 300-kilowatt generating unit, while the Light Plant proposed raising voltage from 1,100 to 2,200 volts.
To modernize its operation, the Light Plant sold its two horses and wagons in 1912 and bought an electric truck and roadster. The roadster cost $1,875, while the truck was $1,530 plus $400 for the battery and $150 for lettering. At the end of 1912, there were 957 street lights in Town.
Four years later, voters rejected an offer to buy wholesale electricity from the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston – later known as Boston Edison.
An innovative change occurred in 1918 – Daylight Savings Time. Although popular, the change resulted in a drop in the amount of electricity used for lighting, according to the 1918 Town Report.
Rapid growth resulted in a Town Meeting vote in 1920 to double the size of the Power House, an expansion that was completed in 1926. Everett Pierce was named to manage the growing utility in 1921 at an annual salary of $2,700. That same year, the Light Board voted to give up the Light Plant’s appliance business and store on the Mill Dam, and later relocated it to the front of the office at 12 Main St.
By 1923, total revenue was $96,282.51, with the iron foundry and other manufacturing plants at Concord Junction contributing to the growing demand for electricity. That year, the Light Plant lost its rental space with Macone Bros. and hired R.L. Wilson to build a 26- by 50-foot structure at the rear of the power plant for $3,983.17. Modern conveniences in the structure included electric lighting, steam heating, and a floor drain in the garage. The Light Board adopted another modern idea in 1928, when they voted for the first time to give all regular employees of the Light Plant two weeks paid vacation each year.
Concord’s thriving utility once again attracted the interest of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston, but their buyout offer was rejected by voters in 1924 in favor of retaining nonprofit, locally controlled electric service. But as rapid growth continued, a Special Town Meeting in 1929 decided to purchase wholesale power from the Boston Edison Company as a way to keep up with increasing demand for electricity without investing in additional generating equipment. Bills were now issued monthly instead of quarterly, with a 10 percent discount for those paid within 15 days.
In the spring of 1930, the Light Board considered placing lines and equipment underground in the business district. However, the $10,000 cost was considered too high, so the idea was rejected. On November 3, 1930, the Power House was retired as the Boston Edison Company was now supplying wholesale electricity to the town at a favorable price from their station on Main Street. As the Light Plant progressed, not all news was positive. Tragedy struck on July 28, 1930 when Arthur C. Anderson became the first and only CMLP worker to be electrocuted in the line of duty.
In June of 1932, the Light Board voted to modernize the office by authorizing the purchase of "one Burroughs Public Utility Billing Machine" for $2,278. The next year, Charles Hogan’s store in West Concord was allowed to begin collecting CMLP bill payments.
On January 26, 1934, the Light Board voted 2-1 to transfer $5,500 in "surplus revenues" to the Town to "reduce the property tax burden." All night street lighting, which had earlier been curtailed as a cost-cutting measure, was reinstated in October of that same year.
Several new belt-tightening actions came in 1935. The Light Board voted a new policy requiring all customers to pay a deposit for service, and to pay all bills within 90 days. The Light Board also decided in 1935 that Light Plant revenue would stay within the Light Plant, "with none transferred to The Town to reduce the tax levy."
The Great Depression focused attention on finances, and all employees received a five percent pay cut in March 1933. But after hearing the President’s message on the National Industrial Recovery Act five months later, the Light Board voted to restore the wage cut and reduce the work week to 40 hours.
Before it was shut down, the Light Plant’s store had been an official Maytag franchise, and had offered three-year interest-free payment plans on electric appliances such as refrigerators, ranges and water heaters. On March 7, 1935, Light Board Chairman Richard B. McSweeney sent a letter to the State House recommending that Concord’s representative vote against proposed legislation requiring utilities to furnish free "lamp bulbs."
A Supreme Court ruling against CMLP prohibiting municipal utilities from selling appliances put the appliance store operating at the front of the office at 12 Main St. out of business in 1937. The appliance business had been so successful that area businesses claimed unfair competition. As a goodwill gesture, the Light Board invited local appliance dealers to display their products at the location, rent free.
The Light Plant had also offered free cooking classes in the 1930s to promote modern electric kitchen appliances. The instructors included Mrs. Mabel Neal, who held classes on Thursday afternoons at the Girl Scout building on Walden Street, and a Mrs. Lawrence, who held classes at the Town evening school.
Concord was hard hit by the hurricane of 1938, and the Light Plant received many grateful letters of thanks from local residents and businesses for their work to restore power in the face of tremendous obstacles. Emerson Hospital passed a resolution praising the work of CMLP during the storm, which carried winds in excess of 125 miles per hour. The hospital’s resolution noted that its power was restored "within one hour from the time Mr. Pierce felt it safe to send out his workers" by establishing a special line to the hospital from the Edison substation.
During the first half of the decade, World War II dominated life in Concord, and electric revenues dropped considerably due to the war. Despite pinched finances, however, the Light Plant provided free electricity to the Defense Committee building. Concern about possible "sabotage" prompted the Light Board to place an all-night guard at the Edison substation. The Light Plant renewed its lease of office space at 12 Main St. for an additional five years in 1943 at an annual rate of $900 per year. Two years later, the Plant began plans to build a two-story building on Lowell Road – then referred to as Lowell Street – for non-office facilities.
By the second half of the decade, post-war growth was already prompting a number of changes. A joint ownership agreement was reached with the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company on June 15, 1948 to allow the use of poles throughout
Town for both electric and telephone service, and to end the complicated rental agreements that had been in effect. Under the terms of the agreement, the Light Plant sold 50 percent ownership in its 2,653 poles to the telephone company for $46,498.09 – the poles’ replacement value at the time.
The Light Plant also negotiated a reduced rate for increased power from Boston Edison following a report from consulting engineer Carroll H. Shaw of New York. After protracted negotiations, an annual savings of more than $4,000 was realized.
The increasing cost of living was also an issue after the war, when Light Plant employees requested across-the-board wage increases to keep up with inflation. Cost-of-living bonuses of $90 per employee were approved in 1948, and a 10 percent general increase went into effect in 1949.
By the end of the decade, CMLP had 2,068 residential customers, with 54.9 percent using electricity for cooking, and 13 percent using electric water heating. A 1948 survey showed that 77 percent of Light Plant customers now had "electric ice boxes," or refrigerators.
The post-war building boom went into full swing in the 1950s, with homes going up all over Town. A major project in 1950 was the 75-home subdivision off Sudbury and Garfield Roads called New Towns, now called Conantum. The initial phase of construction for underground distribution equipment at the Mill Dam was completed in 1950 at a cost of $37,174, but the Light Board cautioned that additional underground work would progress slowly due to its "significant cost."
Construction throughout Town included new street lighting, and in April of 1950 the Light Board voted that granite curbing should be installed between new light standards and the street to protect them. "The Manager is instructed to install same if Road Department refuses," the Board noted.
The question of wages for Light Plant workers was addressed at the beginning of 1951, when the Light Board implemented a wage scale equal to that of Boston Edison. Just a few months earlier, employees had been praised for their "fine performance in making repairs after the hurricane of November 25-26, 1950." The Light Board noted that some employees worked on hurricane-related repairs for 24 hours straight.
Everett E. Pierce retired January 1, 1952 after managing the Light Plant for 31 years. Russell I. Eldridge was named his replacement, at an annual salary of $5,500.
A new "Burroughs Billing Machine" was ordered in May of 1952 at a cost of $4,492.80. The allowance on the old machine, purchased in 1932, was $183. At the same time, a standby worker was approved to cover the hours of 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. at a rate of $2.50 per night, "to be delegated to Line Foreman and Assistant Line Foreman only." Subsidies for installing electric ranges were discontinued on December 31, 1952, when some 90 percent of new homes were voluntarily using electricity for cooking.
The $40 cooking subsidies, introduced in 1931, were deemed unnecessary, although the $40 electric water heating subsidies remained in place until 1954.
In 1954, the Light Board discussed plans to move the main office from 34 Main St. to a central location with the Highway Department. Bimonthly billing was implemented on September 1, at an estimated savings of $4,000 per year. Shortly thereafter, the Light Board approved the Home Products Store in West Concord as a collection location for electric bills. And that fall, the town was hit hard by hurricanes Carol and Edna, which caused more than $27,000 in damages to the electric system.
On July 5, 1956, the Light Board noted the retirement of longtime employee Dennis S. Horne "after 45 years of faithful service and 34 years as Foreman of the Light Plant."
New home construction meant new school construction, and in 1957 the Light Plant decided to install a private pole line to the new elementary school on Old Bedford Road. Some seven poles and a transformer were installed at a cost of $1,600.
New substations at Walden Street and West Concord were built in the mid-50s to keep pace with the Town’s rapid growth. In 1958 alone, sales of electricity increased 13 percent due to new homes, the expansion of General Radio, and Nuclear Metals.
Rapid growth continued during the early years of the decade, when the Light Board spent a considerable amount of time discussing new policies to accommodate the building boom. A discounted off-peak rate was established for home heating, as well as a policy for serving developments with roads not yet accepted by the town.
In 1960, the Light Board voted to ask the new Nashawtuc Country Club, Inc. for a deposit of $100 "as a guarantee of their electric account." As modernization continued, two-way radio equipment was acquired in 1961 for $7,401. That same year, an aerial bucket truck contract was awarded to the Hunt-Pierce Corporation for $14,814.10.
Electric use was booming in 1964, which allowed the Light Board to reduce rates by seven percent. Three years later, a 10 percent across-the-board rate cut was implemented.
There were frequent requests for additional street lighting as new streets were created throughout the town, and in 1965 the Light Board voted to install street lights on private ways, providing they are plowed by the Town. On February 9, 1967, new mercury vapor street lighting was voted for the business district in West Concord.
In order to serve the new residences and businesses, the electric distribution system was continually expanded and upgraded during the 1960s. Underground wiring was again a topic of discussion in 1966, when an Underground Wires Study Committee met with the Light Board to discuss the costs and relative merits of underground electrical construction.
The next year, the Board agreed to use $40,000 to establish an underground wiring fund and to add to the fund annually, subject to Town Meeting approval. A comprehensive plan for undergrounding the Town, showing areas and priorities in increments of $50,000, was begun in 1968. The same year, the Light Board voted to apply to the Board of Selectmen for a cable television license, which was subsequently granted, "in order to protect the Town’s interests."
After years of planning and construction, a new substation on Old Marlboro Road was energized in 1969, improving service and reliability in that area of Concord.
John O’Neil, a 21-year employee, was named CMLP superintendent in 1970 when Russell Eldridge retired. Growth had begun to slow down a bit, and as a result the Plant’s cash position suffered. The Light Board abolished its practice of installing up to two poles on private property at no charge, and looked carefully at other ways to reduce its costs.
Professional rate engineers were hired to review the rate structure, which led to a 20 percent across-the-board increase in 1971. After years of almost continual expansion, the capacity of the distribution system was judged adequate for at least four or five years.
At the end of 1971, the issue of energy conservation was first discussed at a Light Board meeting. Board meeting minutes state that "a major factor in environmental pollution is the electric generating stations as they are known today. Does the Town of Concord wish to continue adding to this burden on society by increased demands for electrical energy on our supplier?
This question, affecting the future of all mankind, is clearly beyond determination by this Board. It is within the realm of possibility, that the Town of Concord, acting in concert, might give direction to regional and national authorities in the final answer to this question of utmost importance." Boston Edison’s proposed power cost increase of 34 percent was cause for concern in 1972, when the Light Plant sought Federal intervention. The next year, Edison’s $480,000 increase forced another general rate increase. A Federal Power Commission ruling on the rate hikes resulted in $289,000 settlement to the Light Plant in 1975.
Boston Edison continued imposing numerous wholesale rate increases during the 1970s. Most increases were "pancaked" on top of each other, resulting in increases on top of increases. This put Concord into a price squeeze since the wholesale prices charged by Edison were greater than their existing retail rates. In response, CMLP filed an anti-trust case against Edison, which was settled in 1980.
The Light Board voted on January 27, 1976 to accept Boston Edison’s offer to purchase their substation on Main Street, known as Station #223, for $500,000. Internal changes were also happening in the 1970s to keep pace with changing times. In 1973, the Town approved the construction of a new garage and office building, and the Light Plant moved to 135 Keyes Road in 1975. Previously, the Light Plant management and staff had occupied about half of the upstairs of the Department of Public Works building. In 1977, the Light Board’s membership was increased from three to five members.
The cost of power was a major issue in the early 1980s, as rising fuel prices pushed up electric bills. Repeated wholesale power cost increases from Boston Edison prompted the Light Plant to take legal action on several occasions, often in concert with other municipal wholesale customers. The legal actions, while time-consuming, resulted in multi-million dollar savings for electricity consumers in Concord, as case after case was decided in the Town’s favor. The 1980 settlement between CMLP and Boston Edison allowed Concord to purchase the use rights to the 14-kilovolt distribution facilities located between Edison’s Lexington substation and the town line. CMLP also bought the Edison facilities within Concord that were used solely for Concord’s service.
The agreement stipulated, in part, that Edison would not make any wholesale rate increases before retail increases. This was to prevent further price squeezes. The provision became effective March 1, 1980, and ran for five years with a possible renewal in another five years unless either party canceled. Not surprisingly, Boston Edison canceled the 1980 agreement after exactly five years and began raising wholesale prices again. By the mid-80s, Edison’s actions had placed Concord in another price squeeze, resulting in another anti-trust case. This time a jury awarded CMLP $5.9 million, with treble damages, for a total of $17.7 million. Unfortunately, the award was overturned on appeal by Edison, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the matter.
In 1982, CMLP joined the New England Power Pool, an organization that monitored and controlled the region’s power supply in order to minimize outages and maximize economy. That same year, the Light Plant joined the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, a nonprofit, public corporation created to provide power supply, financing and other services to the state’s municipal utilities. These moves allowed CMLP to consider other wholesale power options in addition to those offered by Boston Edison. The mid-80s brought some good news in the area of power supply, when Federal authorities ruled that residential customers of municipal utilities in Massachusetts were entitled to receive a share of low-cost hydro power from the New York Power Authority. The savings from this low-cost power appeared as a credit on customer bills.
The issue of placing utilities underground, which had been periodically under discussion since the Light Plant was founded, was finally decided in September of 1986. At that time, the Light Board voted to inform the Planning Board and Board of Selectman "that the ultimate long-term goal should be to underground everything in town." The 1987 Town Meeting voted to support this goal. John R. O’Neil, Light Plant Superintendent since 1970, retired in 1987 after 37 years of service, and was succeeded in 1988 by Daniel J. Sack. By the late eighties, a major distribution system upgrade was in the works, with preliminary plans underway to construct a 115,000-volt substation. The higher voltage was aimed at improving system reliability and efficiency, while allowing for future growth.
Technology was changing the face of office operations as well, with new additions such as an upgraded computerized billing system and electronic metering for large customers. Helping customers to use energy wisely became increasingly important during this decade, which had seen the introduction of home energy audits offered to residential customers in 1984. In 1989, the position of Energy Services Coordinator was added to the Light Plant staff, as a way to help educate customers on energy conservation, environmental matters and other energy-related issues.
A heavy workload caused by the increasing complexities of the utility business prompted the Light Board to step up its monthly meetings to every three weeks in 1990. That same year, a customer newsletter was introduced to keep customers informed about their utility, especially on issues related to policy, energy conservation and the environment.
Facing the need to update and expand, the Board approved plans to remodel the garage facility in the early 90’s. The renovation, a short-term measure to relieve immediate problems, included storage electric heaters in the garage’s office area to serve as a demonstration project. That same year, the Board voted to support the concept of a land swap with the state to acquire a 25-acre parcel of land on Route 2A for construction of a new consolidated operations center. The new center would be a long-term solution to a decades-old need for expanded office, garage, warehouse and storage facilities in one efficient location.
There was good news concerning power supply costs in the spring of 1993, when a favorable power contract with Boston Edison was signed. The new contract was designed to save CMLP some $22 million over 22 years, and resolved five pieces of litigation including a $3.5 million refund to CMLP. Also in 1993, CMLP sold back to Edison the use rights for the 14-kilovolt distribution facilities that were acquired in 1980. The rights were no longer necessary, thanks to Concord’s new 115,000-volt substation.
Additional rate relief came that fall in the form of low-cost hydro power from Hydro Quebec in Canada. Concord joined 38 other New England electric utilities in signing the seven-year contract, which also offered three years of extensions.
System improvements continued on several fronts in this decade, highlighted by the completion of the 115,000-volt substation on Forest Ridge Road in 1994. The new substation is expected to serve the Town’s needs for the next 30 years. Work also continued on upgrading Concord’s electric distribution system to 13,800-volts throughout Town, and on moving electric wires and equipment underground.
Electric industry changes took center stage in 1995, when the state’s Department of Public Utilities embraced the concept of a restructured electric industry designed to encourage retail competition among utilities. On January 1, 1998, Gordon Robinson retired as Line Foreman after 37 years of exemplary service with the Light Plant.
Deregulation legislation authorizing competition for retail electric customers was signed into law in Massachusetts on November 26, 1997. With the new law in place, the electric industry stands on the brink of tremendous change. And while current law does not require public power communities such as Concord to participate in deregulation, it is currently unclear how changes outside Concord may ultimately affect electric customers here. Yet whatever lies beyond the horizon, we’re confident that CMLP will be ready.
Our electric distribution system is reliable and efficient, serving more than 7,200 residential, municipal and business customers throughout Concord. Our rates are low and competitive. We’ve just completed a modern, consolidated operations center. Our employees are well trained and enthusiastic. And we have 100 years of experience in managing change. In 1998, the Concord Municipal Light Plant celebrated a century of service to the people of Concord. We’re proud of our utility’s 100-year tradition of low rates, local control and superior service, and are grateful for the opportunity to carry on that tradition. Thank you, Concord!