February 1, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald
Belmont residents approve of the performance of Belmont Light, even while they don’t quite understand how our local electric utility operates. Those are two of the messages found in the 2017 “Customer Satisfaction Survey” recently released by the utility.
Town residents are happy with both the service they receive from Belmont Light and the rates they pay. According to the Belmont Light study, “when compared to other utilities (gas, phone, water, and cable), [customers] have a more positive perception of the service they receive from Belmont Light than other utilities.” Belmont Light’s customers provided the utility a net positive rating of 94% in 2017, a slight increase over the rating of 91.8% received in the last survey in 2015. Out of the nine factors customers were asked about, “reliable service” ranked the highest, with a positive ranking of 94.4%.
An overwhelming majority of Belmont residents know that Belmont Light is publicly-owned. The Belmont Light study reported that eight out of ten of the town’s residents recognized Belmont Light as a “community owned municipal utility” rather than as a private utility such as National Grid. Knowing the public status of the electric utility, however, does not translate into public knowledge about how Belmont Light operates. Fewer than half of Belmont Light customers knew that the utility is governed by a board made up of the town’s Board of Selectmen.
Being municipally-owned carries with it a host of responsibilities, Belmont customers told Belmont Light. One such responsibility involves the efforts that Belmont Light should take to pursue “community goals.” The Belmont Light study reports that more than one-third of the company’s customers (34.5%) believe that “community goals are more important than industry best practices,” while fewer than one-quarter (23.4%) thought the opposite, that industry best practices are more important.
One of those community goals is achieving higher levels of renewable energy. More than one half of Belmont Light customers reported that they would be willing to pay somewhat higher rates to garner additional renewable energy for Belmont Light, while less than one-third said that they were unwilling to pay more money for this reason. The remainder said they “didn’t know.” According to GreatBlue Research, the company that did Belmont Light’s study, this willingness of Belmont residents to pay somewhat more for “greener” electricity is significantly higher than in other communities comparable to Belmont.
Belmont residents believe Belmont Light is doing a good job of controlling its rates. One advantage of public power is that the rates of municipally-owned utilities tend to be lower than the rates of private utility companies. And Belmont residents are satisfied with Belmont Light’s efforts to keep electric rates reasonable. According to the study, “a slightly higher rate of customers agree with the perception that Belmont Light is ‘doing all that it can to keep customer prices low’ despite changing fuel prices and economic factors.” In fact, a higher percentage of customers believed this to be true in 2017 than in the previous survey performed in 2015.
Belmont Light should be pleased with how favorably it is viewed by its customer base. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned. First, Belmont residents expect Belmont Light to be involved in contributing to “community goals.” Belmont Savings, as our local community bank, even though not publicly owned, serves as a great example of an institution that defines supporting the community as part of its mission. Second, Belmont residents not only expect Belmont Light to take a leading role in responding to global climate change that can be attributed in large part to emissions from electricity, but residents are willing, within reason, to pay somewhat higher rates for the light department to pursue more renewable energy as part of that response.
Reliability remains, as it should be, at the heart of the service provided by any electric utility. When people flip the switch, they want their lights to go on. And reliability is one place where Belmont Light excels. Belmont Light’s own research, however, shows additional steps that the utility could and should be taking to serve the interests and expectations of Belmont’s customer base.