The U.S. Department of Energy could learn a thing or two from the researchers and power-company employees of Burbank.
While the nation’s energy policy slowly, laboriously trudges toward sustainability and cleaner energy practices, Burbank Water and Power has continuously stayed ahead of the curve. In the mid-1990s, when fiber-optic cables were in their fledgling stages as a viable transmission technology, Burbank was already equipped with them.
The man with his finger on the pulse of energy trends is Fred Fletcher, assistant general manager of power supply for Burbank Water and Power. He is constantly researching new trends and new delivery methods for energy that ultimately make the city’s power safer, more efficient and, hopefully, cheaper.
To do his job, Fletcher ensures that Burbank’s energy portfolio is diversified. That means that if you’re a taxpayer, you own part of a coal plant, a nuclear plant, hydroelectric, natural gas, wind, solar, and “exotics.” This last part sort of falls under research and development — right now, a group is looking into a giant mile-high funnel that would be built in the desert to generate renewable energy. I don’t exactly get how it works, but “mile-high funnel” should tell you all you need to know.
Fred said a big part of the utility’s mission is to make reliability real. In 2003, I was one of the 55 million people in the Northeast U.S. and Canada who experienced a blackout caused by a power surge. Today, the U.S. and Canada are trying to avoid blackouts of that scale by setting up micro-grids — something Burbank knows well.
Here, if the electricity transmission lines go down from Burbank’s coal plant in Utah, or from its nuclear-power plant in Phoenix, there’s a network of natural-gas lines to take care of the city’s power needs. It’s a comforting thought that there’s a backup plan — and Fletcher said that comfort is by design: With municipal electric, the customer always comes first. No matter what.
“If the race is bringing value to the shareholder, (private) providers are winning,” Fletcher said. “But if you’re trying to bring value to the community, it’s the municipals’ game.”
On a smaller scale, he said, municipals are also able to take manageable risks. It’s why there’s more experimentation with renewable energy at the local level, and why Burbank was able to offer fiber-optic lines when it did.
In the early 1990s, Burbank made a decision to move away from using coal energy and to research renewable sources. The problem always is cost: It’s hard to build wind farms in Burbank, and Fletcher says the city’s best option is solar. But when the sun goes down, the energy demand doesn’t, so the city is working on plans to have the power supply accommodate that.
One way is with stored energy, using a company called Ice Energy that sells air conditioners that “store energy at night, when electricity generation is cleaner, more efficient and less expensive, and delivers that energy during the peak of the day,” according to its website.
It’s all part of the city’s effort to move away from coal and oil, thus reducing Burbank’s carbon footprint. No politics need enter into it, either: Fletcher and the team at Burbank Water and Power just want to deliver the cleanest energy that won’t entirely zap your wallet.
“We don’t know exactly where (renewable energy) is going, but we’re going to more sustainable ways. We don’t know what that means yet — you’ve got to have an open mind and incrementally make improvements,” Fletcher said.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant to Burbank. When he’s not turning off the lights to conserve energy, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.