When Nature Kicks Up Its Heels, Burbank Water and Power Kicks Into High Gear: Planning and Preparation the Key to Effective Disaster Response

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Photo By Ross A. Benson

Editor’s Note: myBurbank’s Greg Simay asked Dawn Roth Lindell, General Manager, Burbank Water and Power to write about how conditions such as weather and earthquakes would affect BWP in delivering power to Burbank residents after the recent events such as the cold weather that resulted in multiple failures in Texas. She replied with a very powerful response which you can read below. myBurbank thanks Ms. Lindell for the time and thought it took to put this article together for our readers here in Burbank.

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By Dawn Roth Lindell, General Manager, Burbank Water and Power

Burbank may not see the freezing temperatures that hit large parts of Texas, but nature can create a sudden crisis.  Wildfires, earthquakes, even two unrelieved weeks of hot weather can create local challenges.   How does BWP prepare?

BWP employees meet these challenges through innovative planning, effective execution, and with a sincere desire to serve the citizens of Burbank in the best way possible.  While each is proud of his or her own contribution at BWP, each also works toward continuous improvement – a key skill in building responsiveness to our changing conditions. 

The utility services are managed by balancing three vital, foundational elements through a culture of safety: affordability, reliability, and sustainability. Move too fast or too slow to maintain one of the elements and the other two elements may go out of balance.

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Planning For Reliability

BWP was recently awarded the Diamond level designation from the American Public Power Association – an honor that recognizes BWP for being in the top 3% of electric utilities.  Burbank benefits from receiving electric and water services that are recognized for being at the top of the nation for reliability.  This is evidenced in the following graph showing outage minutes on the y axis while each bar across the x-axis represents a single utility. BWP has some of the lowest outage minutes in the nation.

Top reliability requires significant planning to ensure we are prepared for anything that may disrupt the system. This includes activities ranging from the ongoing maintenance and replacement of worn-out assets to ensuring our grid is resilient against natural disasters and potential cyber-attacks.

By carefully maintaining assets, BWP is able to significantly extend the life of older assets.  For example, Burbank’s Valley Pumping Plant is running today with pumps that were installed during WWII.  We have benefited from using these assets for 75 years; they were fully paid for and depreciated decades ago.  Unfortunately, even the best-maintained assets do need to be replaced eventually, and replacing these pumps is necessary in next year’s budget. 

In southern California, mother nature can strike in the form of earthquakes, strong winds and wildfires that disrupt utility services. Our planning and prevention practices have ensured that we are able to successfully manage these unpredictable events. For example:

  • Earthquakes: In 1994 BWP was able to keep the power flowing to the community when outside generation supplies were not available due to the Northridge earthquake. After following cold start protocols for our local power generators, the Burbank community was back in service the evening of the day of the earthquake, while neighboring communities remained without power for much longer. In this event, water supplies were not disrupted, but if they had been, local water storage facilities can provide water while restoration efforts are made.
  • Windstorms: Strong winds can wreak havoc on the electrical system by bringing down trees that knock over power lines. BWP employs a vegetation management company to maintain a strict tree trimming plan to keep power lines safe. The arborist ensures we are able to both save trees and protect power lines. This proved invaluable during the windstorms of 2011 when neighboring communities needed to declare a national disaster and experienced sustained power outages for weeks. Burbank was able to provide mutual aid during this time due to the mild impact and quick restoration to the Burbank community.
  • Wildfires: Southern California’s hot summers and dry landscapes make us particularly vulnerable to uncontrolled fires that can be started by lit cigarettes, unsupervised fires, or engine and electrical system sparks. The recent completion of the wildfire mitigation plan will help Burbank stay diligent in keeping combustible vegetation away from power lines in the Verdugo hillsides and reduce the chances of local wildfires causing power disruption. BWP’s wildfire mitigation plan was used as a model for other city utilities to build theirs – one more way that BWP supports sustainability.

Another threat on our radar that does not come from mother nature, but can be just as crippling, are cyber attacks.  Cybersecurity attacks are an international threat that can potentially have devastating local impacts. Burbank vigorously works with national, state, and regional agencies to combat cyber threats. This includes knowledge and technology sharing and coordinated disaster response planning.  It is critical that Burbank stay up to date on software upgrades, cybersecurity training, and techniques.  Our adversaries continue to find new and creative ways to disrupt service.  We continue to prepare our staff to deter, detect and respond and recover.

Internally, Burbank employees at every level of the organization participate in proactive, ongoing educational, and awareness initiatives to do their part in preventing cyber hacks and to be alert for possible security threats.

Mutual aid provides another line of defense against disaster.  During times of disaster, utilities lean on each other to bring services back up through strong mutual aid agreements. Burbank would not hesitate to provide, or request, mutual aid to/from utility partners. Burbank is grateful not to have needed to ask for mutual aid in recent history but is proud to have provided mutual aid to:

  • Both Glendale and Pasadena, CA in 2011 after 97 MPH winds knocked down power lines throughout the city; and
  • Long Island, NY after Hurricane (Superstorm) Sandy stranded tens of thousands without power in 2012.

 

Planning For Affordability

BWP understands that paying utilities can have a significant impact on a household budget.  BWP employees are fully committed to maintaining affordable rates, and we are proud that our electric and water service prices are amongst the lowest in the region. We strive to balance necessary utility investments and the financial impacts to the community we serve. For example, during the most recent drought which lasted five years and ended in 2016, BWP opted to use cash reserves to pay the higher water costs, while many utilities in southern California increased bills with a drought adder. This past year during the COVID crisis, BWP suspended the planned rate increases and again utilized cash reserves to prevent increasing rates.

This year, BWP is slowly phasing in the increases needed to maintain reliability, plan for disaster response and create a sustainable future.  Instead of taking the necessary 2.5% rate increase for electricity in July, BWP will implement a 1.24% increase in October and a second 1.24% increase in April. Instead of taking the needed 6% rate increase for water in July, BWP is splitting this into three smaller 1.96% increases in October, January, and April to assist with economic recovery.  Also, by delaying the increase until October instead of July, the customers will be avoiding any increase during the time when their usage is highest for both water and power.

Ensuring BWP’s financial health is critical so that we have enough cash to maintain assets and repair as needed.  Just like a strong credit score helps an individual to borrow at lower rates, so, too, does solid financial health enable BWP to be able to borrow through bond funding for large utility projects like replacing water mains.  

Planning For Sustainability

Global warming is another concern that our community is facing. The unusually rapid increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature over the past century has created a global climate change that has changed the weather patterns, created large temperature fluctuations which increase storms, droughts, wildfires, and threaten some animal extinction among many other effects.   

BWP is doing our part to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and has an Integrated Resource Plan to provide GHG free electric generation and expand from the current 35.75% goal to 100% GHG free generation by 2040.   BWP is actively partnering with LADWP to test the use of green hydrogen as a replacement fuel for natural gas.   BWP is sourcing local businesses and nonprofits to design renewable partnerships that enable solutions like solar + storage projects at reduced shared costs. 

BWP is working to help our community adopt electric vehicles, instead of internal combustion engine vehicles, which are a large contributor of air emissions in our city. BWP plays a role in helping our citizens and businesses overcome barriers to adoption with electric vehicle purchase incentives, investing in publicly available chargers, and providing financial and technical assistance to install chargers in homes and businesses.  

In the water realm, BWP continues to increase the number of partnerships with local businesses to use recycled water wherever possible. BWP recently completed a joint project with the City of Los Angeles to treat their groundwater at our treatment plant and return it back to them for their use. This partnership, conducted under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Lockheed Martin Corporation serves several purposes:

  • First, it reduces and removes contaminated groundwater underneath Los Angeles and that is good for everyone. It is vitally important that we partner to create sustainable futures and share in the environmental stewardship of our region.  
  • Second, the water is treated to meet or exceed all federal and state drinking water standards, which is then returned back to the citizens of Los Angeles.
  • Third, the additional water from Los Angeles ensures that the capture and removal of contaminated groundwater occurs at a maximum and uniform rate, even when Burbank’s demand for water is low.

Disasters, whether natural or man-made, can be devastating. While we can’t prevent them, ensuring that we have the assets, processes, and financial strength in place to meet these challenges is key.  Our past experiences have shown that we plan to minimize impact and call upon help when needed.

Finally, enabling employees to keep abreast of industry trends through reading, training, and attending industry forums enables Burbank to modernize at the right pace, consistent with sound business practices, and with creating a greenhouse gas-neutral future.  By networking with industry partners, academia and nonprofits, we can share ideas and find a path.   By partnering, we can also share costs on the solutions.  It is our amazing employees who bring their passion, innovative thinking, and commitment to work who make the difference.  

We welcome community engagement via our BWP Board Meetings as well as guidance and perspectives through the Sustainable Burbank Commission and City Council. Meeting our challenges ahead will take collaboration and innovation from a wide array of individuals and groups committed to making a difference.    We look forward to taking this journey together.