History of Reading Municipal Light Department

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Early Years

On October 2, 1891, the voters of Reading exercised their authority conferred in Section 1 of Chapter 370 of the Acts passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, which enabled cities and towns to manufacture and distribute gas and electricity. After several more votes and numerous committee reports, on May 21, 1894, the Special Town Meeting members voted to establish an electric light plant in the Town of Reading.

Later that year on August 14, the Town voted to issue bonds in the amount of $50,000 to finance the construction of the light plant. Because of their foresight, the towns of Reading, North Reading, Wilmington and Lynnfield Center reap the benefits of owning and controlling their own municipal utility. A municipal light board comprised of three members was elected in 1894.

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Power Station Built

A brick powerhouse with boiler room and chimney was built on Ash Street (Reading) on land purchased from Calvin Martin for $1,100. A coal trestle was built as an extension of Mr. Martin’s trestle to accommodate three cars.

The power station was equipped with two 125 hp boilers and two Corliss engines, one 100 hp, the other 200 hp. The engines were belted to a jackshaft, which extended the length of the engine room where four electric generators were belted. The plant was put into operation on September 26, 1895.

When the first report was presented to the Board of Gas and Electric Light Commissioners, the plant had 81 customers with 1,550 incandescent lamps and 123 street arc lamps connected. The income reported was $1,117.67, with $7,000 appropriated by the Town for operation and maintenance.

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24-Hour Service Introduced

Plant employees wired buildings for service and the first installations of lamp bulbs were furnished at no cost to the customer.

Service was sold on a contract basis at rates varying from $.25 to $.50 per month for each 16 candlepower lamp, depending upon the hours used. Customers were also charged by meter, ¾ of a cent per lamp house (or 1 ½ cents per ampere hour) and a meter rental charge of $.10 per month.

Another generator was added in 1899 to handle the increased load. Additional streetlighting capacity was added in 1906. Until then, the plant was not operated during daylight hours; 24-hour service was introduced in 1906.

Around-the-clock service heralded a new beginning for the plant. The Reading Chronicle became the first local business to install an electric motor in its business, followed soon after by the Samuel Pierce Organ Pipe Company and the Reading Rubber Manufacturing Company.

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Power to Lynnfield Begins

On November 12, 1906, a committee was appointed by Special Town Meeting to make a thorough investigation of the needs of the electric light and power plant. The committee submitted its report on May 13, 1907, recommending an additional boiler, two electric generators and a new switchboard to increase the capacity of the plant to 480 kilowatts. Town Meeting voted to authorize a bond of $26,000 to purchase the equipment.

In the meantime the light plant was extending service to residents of outlying areas, stopping at the town boundaries of North Reading, Wilmington and Lynnfield Center. The citizens of these communities, without electric power because of the distance between the communities and the power sources, requested power from the Town of Reading. After consultation with Town Meeting, special legislation – Chapter 369 – was enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature authorizing the Town of Reading to sell and distribute electricity for light, heat or power in North Reading, Wilmington and Lynnfield Center.

On March 1, 1909, at the annual Town Meeting, the Light Board was authorized to extend distribution lines to Lynnfield Center. Notes amounting to $2,500 were issued to provide funding and extensions were made by employees of the plant. Service to 17 customers began on December 10, 1909.

RMLD’s business office was located in a second floor room in the Masonic Building at the corner of Main and Haven Streets. It was there that customers could pay their bills, purchase lamp bulbs, motors, electric irons and table lamps.

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Power to North Reading and Wilmington

On June 21, 1910, at a special Town Meeting, the Municipal Light Board authorized the extension of its distribution lines to the Town of North Reading. Notes of $12,000 were approved and M. K. Kendall and Company was contracted to construct the North Reading distribution system, which was completed in 1911 when 42 customers were connected to the system, as were nine hp motors and 38 tungsten streetlights.

Following a special Town Meeting on June 26, 1911, service was extended to the Town of Wilmington. Bonds in the amount of $20,000 were issued to finance the extension, which was completed in 1912.

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RMLD Continues to Grow

In 1913 the Masonic Building was too small to accommodate the business office and the electric appliance showroom. RMLD relocated to new quarters in the YMCA building on Main Street in Reading. A five-year lease was signed and a display room was set up for the sale of lamps and electrical appliances.

Between 1909 and 1914 the 139 arc lamps used for streetlighting were replaced with 968 incandescent lamps.

The increased load on the generating equipment at the power station once again created the need for additional capacity and in 1913, a consulting engineer from Lowell was hired. His report concluded that the Board should purchase and install a 500 kilowatt turbine and two condensers and construct a cooling pond for condensing water. An appropriation of notes in the amount of $23,500 was voted for this addition to the plant.

Additional boilers, a 600 kilowatt turbine with condenser and pumps, a new switchboard and the transformation of the generating and distribution facilities from two-phase to three-phase were added after a report was issued in 1917 which identified the future needs of the plant. As a result of this report, the light plant acquired land owned by the Town adjacent to the power station, where a cooling pond was constructed. Further improvements at the power station and extensions for service were made between 1920 and 1923 until a generating capacity of 1,500 kilowatts was reached.

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Cooking Rate Added

In 1918 the business office moved to the Municipal Building on Lowell Street in Reading until 1928. The showroom was expanded to accommodate the increasing number of electrical appliances sold and serviced by RMLD.

General Manager Arthur Sias determined the cost of electricity had to be reduced to make electricity available and affordable to all. Rates started at 15 cents per kilowatt hour until 1902 when they were reduced to 13.5 cents; to 12.75 cents in 1905; to 10.8 cents in 1912 and to 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour in 1915.

World War I caused an increase in rates to 12.6 cents where they remained until 1922. At the end of the War, a great demand was placed on the light plant for electricity for lighting. Rates were reduced by approximately one cent per kilowatt hour per year until they reached a level of 7.2 cents.

In the meantime a cooking rate of 5.4 cents per kilowatt hour was established in 1907 to accommodate electric cooking devices. By 1916 the cooking rate was reduced to 2.7 cents per kilowatt hour.

Sias initiated a range-selling campaign during the mid 1920s and offered the free installation of ranges to all customers who purchased one from the plant (special wiring was required to accommodate the ranges). It was an innovative idea which took hold. The revenues of the electric plant increased even with cooking rates less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour.

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Boston Edison Power Added

By 1925 the load on the system had increased to such an extent that the generating equipment was unable to carry the peak load. A portion of the electrical current was provided by Boston Edison Company with the installation of a special feeder circuit between the power station and the Stoneham town line.

In 1926 an agreement with Boston Edison to purchase the required current was reached. An underground transmission line consisting of four ducts and two 5,000 KVA cables was built, linking Reading with the Stoneham town line. The switchboard and related equipment were installed at the power station, allowing the plant to receive high tension current of 13,800 volts to be transformed into 2,3000 volts for distribution on the local feeder circuits. The work was completed in 1927.

A garage for the light plant was added in 1926 on land adjacent to the power station.

In 1928 the business office was moved to 565 Main Street where customers could conveniently pay their bills and purchase new appliances.

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RMLD Makes National and International News

Prior to 1928 customers were charged a special rate to operate an appliance and the additional expense of installing separate wiring. If a customer had a range and a refrigerator, the refrigerator could be attached to the same circuit; otherwise, the refrigerator needed separate service. In 1928 RMLD did away with the practice of having separate wiring for customers who used electricity for cooking and refrigeration. RMLD became the first Massachusetts electric plant to offer customers a residential rate for the use of electricity “any time and for any purpose.”

The new residential rate was the subject of an editorial in Electrical World of New York on November 10, 1928. The rate was copied by other municipal plants and electric companies, as well as the Department of Public Utilities. News of the new rate was also carried in the Electrical Times of London.

The residential rate was further modified to a low rate of 2.33 cents per kilowatt hour, making it the lowest in Massachusetts. To maintain the sale of appliances, including water heaters, during the Depression years, the Department created a leasing program for those customers who could not afford payment at time of purchase.

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Haven Street Office

RMLD’s distribution system was enlarged in 1930 and an underground distribution system was installed in Reading Square in 1931. Poles and overhead wires were removed and ornamental streetlight posts were erected. The underground system was expanded in 1934 with a larger switchboard constructed in 1935. Voltage on the distribution circuits increased from 2,300 to 4,000 volts to reduce line losses.

The Town of Reading exercised its rights under its agreement with Boston Edison to purchase underground ducts and cables between the Stoneham and Reading town line to the power station on Ash Street. The following year on September 21, 1938, the system suffered extensive damage throughout the four towns as a result of the Hurricane of 1938.

The business offices and appliance showrooms of the Light Department were moved to a building purchased by the Department at the corners of Haven, High and Green Streets, known as Black’s Block in 1939. The building measured 25,573 square feet and cost $36,000.

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Expansion Continues

From 1939-1941 expansion of the underground distribution system was conducted in earnest on High, Lowell, Linden, Woburn and Sanborn Streets. The expansion was put on hold during World War II and eventually resumed when government restrictions on the use of critical materials were lifted.

An expansion of the garage and storeroom building on Ash Street was required in 1941 to accommodate the increasing customer load.

Town Reports of 1943 show a plant investment of more than $1.2 million, with all but $115,000 in outstanding bonds and notes, paid by earnings of the plant. During that year, the Department served 6,900 customers with a gross revenue of $405,000.

As the needs of the Department increased and the requests for service in all four communities continued to rise, the Department kept pace with the changes in technology and continued to add to the distribution system throughout the next 50 years.

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Moving into the Future

The Gaw Substation (Station 4) on Causeway Road in Reading, constructed in 1969-1970, provided RMLD with the capability to connect to the grid and purchase power from almost anywhere in the Northeast Power Pool. In 1976, RMLD began to purchase power from other electric systems through New England, utilizing nuclear, coal-fired and hydroelectric sources in addition to its power agreement with Boston Edison.

More than 84 years after Town Meeting members voted to establish their own electric utility, the Department had 19,500 customers and gross revenues of $17 million in 1978. By 1984 an additional 1,500 customers were added, to bring the total number of meters to 21,000. Revenues in 1984 increased to $45 million. The plant value of $13 million in 1976 increased to $24 million by 1984.

To handle the increasing load and responsibilities, the Department was reorganized in 1988 to include three divisions: Business, Energy Services and Transmission and Distribution. That year, RMLD began looking for ways to accommodate the space requirements to house these divisions, as well as RMLD equipment and apparatus.

By 1990, RMLD received approval from Reading Town Meeting members to purchase a building on Ash Street, adjacent to the existing RMLD structure. Ground was broken in early 1993 and renovations to the building were completed in 1994, the year of RMLD’s Centenary. The building at 230 Ash Street remains home to all RMLD operations with the exception of substations.

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More Than a Century of Advancement and Achievement

Since its Centenary, RMLD has continued to advance the electric grid and the technology associated with operating a reliable and efficient electric utility. In 1995, Automated Meter Reading (AMR) technology that transmits meter readings via radio signal was introduced. In June 2000, construction was completed on a distribution substation (Station 3) connected to 115,000-volt transmission lines in North Reading, designed to accommodate growth and enhance the entire system’s efficiency and reliability. A fiber optic cable network links all substations for state-of-the-art system monitoring and control. By 2004, RMLD had rolled out an online billing and payment system. In 2009 and 2010, RMLD implemented a Geographic Information System (GIS) which maps distribution system equipment and customer locations, and expanded the automation of the distribution system by adding smart grid technology.  

The early 2000s brought about an increased focus on energy efficiency and carbon reduction, and that mindset continues today. RMLD introduced its popular Energy Star Appliance Rebate Program in 2002. RMLD’s Green Choice Program, which allowed customers to support electricity produced from green sources such as wind, hydro, solar, and biomass, was introduced in 2006. Rebate programs were expanded to include commercial rebates and rebates for renewable energy systems in 2009 and 2010. In 2017, RMLD introduced its community shared solar program, Solar Choice, allowing customers to participate in locally produced solar power without installing panels on their home. To further support carbon reduction, RMLD began offering electric vehicle charging station rebates in 2016, and in 2018 purchased a 100% electric fleet vehicle and installed a public electric vehicle charging station at its facility on Ash Street.

With a continued focus on peak demand reduction as a means to maintain affordable electric rates, RMLD installed a 2.5-megawatt distributed gas generator at its North Reading Substation in 2017 followed by a 10 megawatt-hour lithium ion battery unit in 2019. Both units are operated when New England power supply demand is at its highest, reducing the amount of electricity RMLD needs to purchase from the wholesale electric market during expensive peak times and lowering related transmission and capacity fees.

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RMLD Celebrates 125 Years

In 2019, RMLD celebrated its 125th anniversary. RMLD proudly emulates the same values it has held since its establishment in 1894: to provide safe, reliable, and affordable electricity with a focus on customer service and community.

CLICK HERE for a short video and other materials commemorating the 125th anniversary of the RMLD. 

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Updated 01-13-20