In 1870, Belmont entered into a contract with the Arlington Gas Company to light its streets using gas and oil lamps. The following year, a total of 32 gas lights illuminated Belmont's streets, ten that were owned by the town, 22 erected by private citizens.
Belmont switched from town or manufactured gas to gasoline street lights in 1880; however, since the lamps blew out in windy conditions and the town was paying $6.00 per night for 100 lights, the Selectmen felt this was too high a price to pay. The town agreed when the newly-established Somerville Electric Light Company approached them with a proposal to extend its lines into Belmont from Arlington in 1888. By 1889, Somerville Electric Light started wiring residences in the community. A second three year contract was signed in 1892, and by the mid-1890's, the company supplied electricity for 13 arc lamps and 135 incandescent street lights.
Complaints about service created arift between the Selectmen and the electric company, necessitating a special town meeting to consider the question of municipal ownership in March 1896. A vote of 50-to-1 supported the motion to buy out the Somerville Electric Light Company property in Belmont. A second town meeting ratified the motion and authorized the Selectmen to enter into negotiations to purchase the lighting system serving the town. This action was made possible by an 1891 law that authorized Massachusetts cities and towns to buy existing electrical plants and transfer them from private to municipal ownership.
On June 3, 1898, the Town of Belmont and the Somerville Electric Company executed a bill of sale for all poles and related fixtures and equipment, and Adalbert Dailey, an employee of the electric company, was hired to manage the newly-acquired municipal system. At the time, there were 34 residential customers who paid 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to light their 20, 24 or 32 candlepower Edison incandescent lights. Since Dailey's expertise was wiring, he asked to return to the street crew in 1899. In January 1900, Edwin P. "Ned" Taylor, Jr. became became superintendent, leading the department for the next 38 years.
From 1898 to 1902, Belmont Municipal Light Department continued to buy electric power from Somerville. In 1902, a contract was signed with Cambridge Electric Company. Since the electricity was coming from the east, the location of the high tension meter and the switch house was moved from Lake Street to Exeter Street at the Cambridge line. An agreement was also made to share poles with New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. The bulk of power purchased from 1902 to 1920 went for street lighting. Belmont operated on a "moonlight" schedule until 1910: on cloudless nights, the streetlights were not lit.
By 1910, Belmont Municipal Light Department had grown to a total of 466 residential, 69 commercial, and five "services" for power purchases, as well as 10 town buildings and departments. The number of streetlights also doubled, from 158 to 338 in 1910. During that same year, the department grew from a $12,000 liability to a utility with $50,000 in assets. Rates decreased throughout the first 14 years, dropping from 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to 18 cents in 1904, to 15 cents in 1908, to 12 cents in 1912.
In 1911, the Selectmen approved leaving the street lights on until 1:30 a.m. everyday regardless of the weather because of the increased traffic on the streets brought on by the electric street car service from Cambridge and Somerville. By 1914, the Selectmen voted to operate the street lights all night during the summer months because of the foliage on the trees.
Belmont's building boom after 1910 necessitated Cambridge Electric to suggest that the town upgrade its electric power facilities, leading to changes to the Oxford Avenue meter house and the construction of a three-phase trunt line with heavy copper wire from the meter house through School, Common, and Waverly streets beginning in 1916. A new contract with Cambridge Electric in 1916 lowered rates again and instituted a "utility" rate for cooking and other appliance usage. The rate provided current at 3 cents per kilowatt-hour after consumption of an initial 10 kilowatt-hours each month.
Belmont Municipal Light Department continued to upgrade its electrical system beginning in 1919 through the 1920s. Work included a substation on White Street to house the street lighting transformers, allowing the department to turn the lights off and on from a central location. Before that, a police officer activated a part of the system in Harvard Lawn, traveling by street car to Waverly to turn on the remaining 675 street lights. More improvements were made in 1925, including the construction of a substation on Concord Avenue behind the old Adams Store. The town of Belmont purchased the store, which had been a landmark for 60 years, to house the light department. The Belmont Light Department operated from the site, starting in 1925. The Adams Store was razed in 1934.
In 1933, the town applied for a Public Works Administration (PWA) grant of $16,000 and began construction of a brick-and-steel, two-story light department office adjacent to the substation in 1934. The building's dedication on August 8, 1934 coincided with Superintendent Taylor's 70th birthday. Belmont Selectmen James Watson Flett, who served on the board for four decades, beginning in 1924, oversaw the dedication. In October 1938, following the death of Superintendent Taylor, Chester L. Howe was named as acting manager of the light department. He was named Superintendent in 1939.
During the years leading up to World War II, the Belmont Light Department upgraded its system, including the undergrounding of wires in the Cushing Square and Belmont Center areas in 1939, and the installation of a remote relay system in 1940. When war was declared in 1941, the light department began instituting blackouts and dim-outs and all line extensions were stopped after the War Production Board embargoed materials such as copper.
The end of the War also meant the end of wartime limitations. The installation of underground ducts began again and the system expanded. In 1950, additional transformers were installed at the substation to handle the load created by the Hittenger and Shaw Estates developments, and in 1953, a new primary 2300-volt cable upgraded the Concord Avenue system from Pleasant to Winter Street.
Belmont Light Department records show a customer base of nearly 8,850 customers in 1954, with a survey reporting that all Belmont homes had electricity. Chester Howe retired as department manager that same year, replaced by the department's former plant engineer, Howard C. Kramer, who served from 1954 to 1965. Charles Campbell, the department's fifth general manager, succeeded him.
During the next three decades, from the mid-1950s through the 1960s and 1970s, the department continued to strengthen its underground and overhead distribution system. At the same time, power costs escalated due in part by the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and double-digit inflation in the late 1970s. Cambridge Electric began passing on its fuel charge increases to wholesale customers like Belmont Light Department, causing costs to jump 13% in 1971, and another 3% in 1972. Cambridge Electric filed another increase in 1973 that would increase power costs by 18%; Belmont successfully fought the increase with the Federal Power Commission and was granted a five-month reprieve. Additional increases were filed in 1974 and 1979, although rates remained 27% to 30% below those paid by customers of privately owned electric utilities.
Although power costs increased, Belmont's consumption went down during the same period, thanks to energy conservation programs. Stability returned in the 1980s in terms of rates, peak demand and purchased power. In 1988, Belmont purchased 111,423,360 kilowatt-hours from Cambridge Electric for its 10,545 customers; in 1997, the department purchased 111,647,040 kilowatt-hours for the 10,638 customers, and increase of only 100 customers. In 1995, the town began an ambitious program to connect town buildings using fiber optic technology. Also during that time, Belmont Municipal Light Department welcomed Managers Joseph Mannix (1978 to 1983), Ken Conroy (1983 to 1994), and Tim McCarthy (1994 to 2005).
As a new century began, the department began a new chapter in its history in 2001 with a move to a new building on Prince Street. Three years later, in 2004, Belmont Light Department purchased its first hybrid vehicle.