The City of Burbank is known as ‘the Media Capital of the World’, and its Water and Power department faces unique challenges posed by an extraordinary set of customers. Energy efficiency, along with ensuring an abundant supply of power and above-average reliability, are central to way the utility’s performance is perceived. Tackling these issues with intrepid determination is Frederic C. Fletcher, Assistant General Manager, Department of Water & Power, City of Burbank. Smart Energy International caught up with him recently.

Please start by telling us about yourself.

Frederick C. Fletcher: I’ve been in the electric utility business since 1974, after receiving my Bachelor of Science from the South Dakota School of Science and Technology. I hadn’t originally planned to enter the electric power business, but the opportunity was there and I found I really liked it. I also found there was a growing need for control engineering and people who looked at things from a systems viewpoint. In 1977 I joined a number of individuals to set up what is now Missouri River Energy Services, serving around 57 municipalities. In 1986 I came through to Burbank, and we have done a lot of things to move the utility forward over the last 21 years. You can say that things have changed dramatically.

Please tell us a bit about the history of the utility.
FCF: The City of Burbank was incorporated in 1911 and has grown to accommodate 45,000 residential customers, as well as about 6,000 commercial customers. Today we have enough internal generation on site to handle all the needs of the city, and more. We’ve had around 100 MW of generation available since the 1960s, but have recently replaced 1950s technology with a combined-cycle 300 MW power plant. This is more than we need, so we provide additional capacity to our neighboring municipalities.

Another thing that makes us unique is that we are early adopters of fiber optics. With the 1,200 MW of generation in Los Angeles County, the highest in California, we were experiencing enormously high fault currents, so whenever there was a fault some of the current would go onto the copper circuits and blow the electronics just when you needed it most. So now we use fiber optics, which cannot conduct fault current, and this has dramatically improved the reliability of our system and communication grid. It has also helped foster the development of media-related industries such as Warner Bros. and ABC. And it has helped position us to go ahead with a smart grid.

What are some of the key challenges your utility faces?
FCF: The one thing we face is a growing shortage in capacity, so we are looking at renewables – solar, wind and geothermal. The main issue around renewables is knowing when the energy is available and when it is needed. So from a power supply standpoint, and as a control engineer, it seemed obvious that I needed a smart grid. My concern was how to get this smart grid put in place.

Give an overview of your utility’s metering operations, in particular your recent WiFi project.
FCF: We’ve got a four step program to AMI. We began at the start of 2007 with a paper study to look at the approach. A team was assembled with a WiFi technology company, Ethernet experts, a metering expert (a former superintendent from Puget Energy) and a meter manufacturer. Each of the experts gave me a report about the different options we should be using.

Step two was the initial deployment of what we called the WiFi Lab, which took place on our own site. We put up three mesh WiFis measuring our own generation. The biggest problem we faced was connecting to the internet, but the WiFi meters worked immediately and connected to the mesh. Now step three is under way – the engineering of the WiFi network to go throughout the city, and the purchase and installation of about 100 commercial meters. We want these 100 meters, and the 100 meters that we currently have on telephone lines, to represent 50% of our electric energy sales. By identifying the smallest number of customers that represent a large portion of the load; one can begin to get the bulk of one’s energy down for the least amount of time. We need to install enough WiFi modes to get those customers online by July 2008.

I’m currently looking for an engineering company that has the expertise to help us determine how we are going to implement demand control by coordinating the demand control response of our largest customers. We need to do a survey of what we’ve got out there by way of demand controllers, find out how they can be interfaced with, and establish how to bring all that information into a central point so we can organize the data to allow us to intelligently work with the customer in reducing demand in a tactical manner in real time. I would like to see this happening by next summer, but I realize what a fanciful goal that may be. But we will start moving in that direction and we will eventually start seeing demand control points.

What plans do you have in place to implement AMI, and what do you envisage as the key benefits?
FCF: Well, I like the idea behind the smart grid because it allows me to shed load at the point of utilization. I can shut down an area without any impact on the overall environment. Another important thing is that I’ve got to make energy efficiency work better. Customers often don’t know when they use the most energy, and when you only read the meters once a month you don’t know either. One of the things you learn in control engineering is the importance of the time sampling interval. At once a month, your sampling interval is so large that you can’t refine the data. This is not going to give you energy efficiency; you need something that will give you daily if not hourly reads. Once you reach that time level, you can start to determine where energy is being over-utilized. You can identify the buildings that are using the most energy when it is hot or cold, for instance, and based on this data you can encourage the customer to become more efficient. Those who do change their behavior should have a higher level of reliability than those that refuse. In other words, those entities who participate should receive a benefit and the best benefit we can give them is improved reliability.

The smart grid has two big advantages; first, the ability to surgically turn off energy utilization, and secondly to precisely locate the energy efficiency opportunities.

What strategies have you implemented to strengthen relationships with your customers?
FCF: We built a 300 MW combined cycle plant here, and there were no public concerns raised. The people here are very much interested in reliability. One reason for this is that we have earthquakes from time to time, and in the past Burbank has been able to restore electricity the same day of the earthquake. It is not good to be without electricity after an earthquake. People like the security offered by reliability.

We also have a very effective rebate program in place to improve efficiency amongst our customers. And there has been a significant uptake in compliance since the rebates have been put on offer.

How do you manage security issues on your network?
FCF: Our fiber network is built to the NERC CIPS standards, so the media industry can be sure that their data isn’t read by the wrong eyes. It’s about staying ahead of the curve on that. For example, management supports going along with the most secure level of encryption available. We are currently supporting 128 bit encryption on our secure routers, as well as the passwords on our operating systems.

What is the vision for your utility?
FCF: We are going to be doing a lot more around renewables. We have enough information to reduce greenhouse gases, we have to reduce our CO2 emissions. It’s the law in California, you have got to do things to reduce greenhouse gases. The other thing is peak oil. We are expecting to see the price of fossil fuels increase dramatically and probably availability to become an issue too, so we need to get away from relying on carbon-based fuels. These are major things that we cannot achieve overnight. First of all we are adding wind; next is geothermal, which is in development and should be online around 2013. We are also starting to play with solar, and hope to have it online by 2016. The longer the time period we have to make the transition, the less the financial intensity will be when the change happens.

Thank you for your input.