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Burb's Eye View: Keeping the city ahead of the energy curve

May 31, 2011|By Bryan Mahoney

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.

This became a real competitive difference, city officials say, for studios choosing to locate here or to continue operating within the city limits that needed high bandwidth as they switched from film to digital technologies.

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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.

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