Heat, Age Caused Transformer Explosion Blacking Out Belmont

Photo: (from left) Belmont Light’s Jim Palmer, Belmont Selectmen’s Chair Jim Williams and Selectman Adam Dash at the emergency meeting of the Belmont Board of Selectmen to discuss the June 12 blackout.

The timing of the widespread power outage that affected between a quarter to a third of town residents during the hottest day of the year “was like our worst nightmare,” said James Palmer, general manager of Belmont Light, as he spoke to an emergency meeting of the Board of Selectmen held at Town Hall on Tuesday, June 13,

Palmer said a 90 degree plus afternoon in June when electrical demand had peaked with the town schools in session limited how the municipal utility could attack the equipment failure at one of the aging substations in town, requiring Belmont Light to rush in mobile generators to get the lights back on.

“We really had no other choice,” said Palmer.

The meeting, called by Selectmen Chair Jim Willams, brought the chiefs of police and fire, department heads to discuss their response to the incident and any further impact of the large-scale outage that left some neighborhoods without power for nearly 10 hours.

Highlights of the meeting

  • The town’s and the utility’s contingency plans developed to meet such an emergency received relatively good scores from town officials, said acting Town Administrator Phyliss Marshall. “I think I can honestly say that … we are very well prepared [for incidents such as these],” said Police Chief Richard McLaughlin.                     
  • It was the heat and the age of the equipment that lead to the single transformer in the Hittinger substation to “explode,” said Palmer. Luckily, the transformer did not catch fire due to safety systems that worked as a circuit breaker and cut off the electricity entering the substation. Had a fire started, the impact of a subsequent oil-based fire would have stretched fire resources and would have likely created havoc for months for the Light Department.
  • Three generator trucks were used to supplement the utility’s substation until repairs were completed. It’s suspected the cost of renting the trucks from Sunbelt from Hyde Park will be covered by insurance. 
  • Belmont Superintendent John Phelan and Belmont High School staff and educators decided to end the school day around 1:20 p.m. since power was not expected to be re-established until after the end of the scheduled classes. Students at the Chenery and Winn Brook who also lost power were kept in their buildings for the remainder of the day for safety and logistic reasons.
  • The Chenery Middle School was closed on Tuesday as a 400 amp transfer switch on the school’s backup generator malfunctioned, despite passing inspection just two weeks previous. According to Fire Chief David Frizzell, this switch has a tendency to act erratically if not used regularly. When he reinspected it Tuesday morning, Frizzell said it was working as expected. But the switch is now scheduled to be replaced.
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