Powering Strong Communities
Energy Storage

New GM of Burbank Water and Power Details Priorities, Benefits from Long-Duration Energy Storage System


The following is a transcript of the June 17, 2024, episode of Public Power Now. Learn more about subscribing to Public Power Now at Publicpower.org/Podcasts. Some quotes may have been edited for clarity.

Paul Ciampoli
Welcome to the latest episode of Public Power Now.

I'm Paul Ciampoli, APPA's news director.

Our guest on this episode is Mandip Samra, the new general manager of California public power utility Burbank Water and Power.  

Prior to being named the new General Manager of the utility in May, she previously served as assistant general manager of power supply at Burbank Water and Power.  

Mandip, thanks for joining us.

Mandip Samra
Thank you. It's good to be here.

Paul Ciampoli
Mandip, to get our conversation started, I typically like to do this when I'm interviewing people who have taken on a new role at a public power utility in terms of leadership.  

In that context, I wanted to know if you could detail your career in the utility sector leading up to your new role at the utility.

Mandip Samra
Oh yes, I'd be more than happy to. I will just be very honest and say I fell into the utility sector just by chance.

I was getting my second masters at the University of Southern California and was looking for a job and so I could pay to go to school as well, and I found this great opening for a graduate management internship at the City of Pasadena Water and Power Department, also known as Pasadena Water and Power.

I joined that organization in 2004 as a graduate management intern working in the customer relations group, which included marketing and public benefits, which is energy efficiency and water conservation.

I worked there for 2 1/2 years.  

I had such great people to work with -- key account managers  -- really going out and meeting with the customers to identify needs, so that was really just a great opportunity and intro to the utility space -- a space I did not know was readily available to somebody with my background, which is an economics background.

After being there for a couple of years, I decided to pivot my utility career to do more analytics because that was my background and I found a job at Anaheim Public Utilities.  

I was there for 9 years working in the resource planning space where I did integrated resource plans, long term forecasting, statistical modeling, production cost modeling and eventually I led the regulatory group for power supply and integrated resources.  

I was there when the renewable portfolio standard was established in California as well as the cap and trade and greenhouse gas emissions regulations.  

So I was the lead on that and it was a great nine years. They really invest in their team.

They sent me to a lot of conferences. I was always getting continuous learning on all the new updates to the utility sector.  

I moved, so I was living in Orange County. I moved to Pasadena and then I left Anaheim for Edison, which is an investor-owned utility.

At Edison, I worked on the integrated resources plan -- that was in 2017. That was when it was mandated by the state for investor-owned utilities and publicly-owned utilities. I was only at Edison for a year. But for that year, it was every single week working on the integrated resources plan.

Having lived in Pasadena, I really was hoping to return back to Pasadena and fortunately there was a job opening there.

I ended up working as the power resources manager for Pasadena for about 4 1/2 years where I led their first integrated resources plan and developed a robust stakeholder process to get that IRP completed.  

And then I took a lateral for an opportunity to be the assistant general manager of power supply at Burbank Water and Power, and I've been here for three years and I did a little bit of everything.  

My former role was to manage the Energy Control Center, the power production group facility, which includes our Eco campus -- we have a 10.5-acre eco campus in the heart of Burbank -- and then also manage resource planning.  

And then I got this role to head the utility, so I'm very blessed and humbled for this opportunity and look forward to making a difference here.

Paul Ciampoli
What are your immediate priorities as the new general manager of the utility?

Mandip Samra
I'm a people person, so a lot of what I need to figure out the first 90 days are to talk to my team here to understand what they need from a GM, to understand what our succession planning is, to understand where we go for compliance or do we have the right people and the right roles.  

My first 90 days is to meet with the entire BWP staff.  

We have over 350 employees, so I really do plan to do that. I've met with about 50 or 60 so far. My power supply team was 100, so they all already know me, so I have another 150 or so to go.

So I'm really looking forward to just hearing from them.  

Secondly, to meet with the public. I have been meeting with entities that want to meet with me to understand what my vision is, what my goal is for the utility.  

So first and foremost, it's people -- understanding the needs of the staff and also of the public...tied for first is reliability -- making sure we have the lights on, we have our fiber still working for our large commercial customers and we have our water flowing, so making sure there's no interruption to operations.

And then second would be regulatory compliance. We have a lot of regulations in California. So I want to ensure that my team is on top of those compliance requirements.

Lastly, we will re-prioritize goals depending on our team, depending on regulations and then also working to maintain high morale and good succession planning here as well.

Paul Ciampoli
I guess it goes without saying that the fact that you've worked in a senior leadership role at utility gives you some advantages in terms of your transition to the new leadership role, just because you're not coming at the utility entirely new, but at the same time you've got a lot of new responsibilities. Is that fair to say?

Mandip Samra
100% and just to add to that, the assistant general manager, the executive team here is stellar. They are so good at what they do.

There's already been that trust building since I've already been at that role with my trust and them knowing their job inside out, so we just have really, really good leadership here. That really makes my job a little easier on that front, where you have that trust.

Paul Ciampoli
The next two questions I had for you are related to energy storage specifically.

In late May, the utility announced the commissioning of its first long duration energy storage system which utilizes an iron flow battery.  

My first question related to that is, could you detail how the utility as well as customers are going to benefit from this storage system?

Mandip Samra
I had mentioned earlier that we have this eco campus.  We have about 10 acres, 10 1/2 acres of space adjacent to a large freeway and in the middle of an industrial area.  

So having that space helps. We also have a 265-kilowatt solar array on campus. So that iron flow battery, which is 75 kilowatts, is directly connected to that solar array.

So that renewable energy that now is just going to our buildings is now going to be stored to be able to maximize the time to use it based on energy pricing, something we haven't done before.  

So one of the great benefits is allowing our team here to test out energy storage, long duration and long duration is very important because it could hold 6 to 8 hours of a charge so we could store the energy there for that long and use it during the Super Peak and peak hours, something we haven't done before, something our team hasn't done before.  

The integration of how we run that, as well as how the resource works, is going to be extremely beneficial.

Secondly, our contract for the resource -- it's going to last over 20 years.  

We bought the battery. We have a maintenance contract with our vendor ESS who has been great to work with and we got that $125,000 DEED grant through APPA that really helped finance the battery itself.  

So it's just testing this out and being able to save long term energy costs as well using renewable energy when we need it when the sun isn't shining.

Paul Ciampoli
I think it's safe to say that currently when people think about energy storage, lithium ion still kind of rises to the top in terms of top of mind in terms of technology.  

So I I wanted to dig further in terms of what specifically are the benefits of an iron flow battery as compared with other storage technologies.

Mandip Samra
I will start with the long duration nature -- 6 to 8 hours of storage. The long lifespan of the product as well -- it's over 20 years. You do not need to change anything out.

The elements are abundant.... it's predominantly iron, so that really works out well and it's manufactured predominantly in the United States.  

The manufacturing site is in Oregon, which really helps and then further down the line to get IRA funding, it's really going to help to look for projects that are manufactured primarily in the U.S. where we don't have supply chain issues and things like that working with overseas entities.

Paul Ciampoli
Earlier in our conversation, you touched upon resource planning.  

In terms of doing my research in preparation for this interview, one of the things that jumped out at me is the fact that the utility’s 2024 integrated resource plan was completed in late 2023.

I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about what you see as the key highlights of that IRP?

Mandip Samra
Burbank really cares about community input, so we worked very closely with the community.  

We had a stakeholder group made up of a diverse group of ratepayers, including environmental advocates, ratepayer advocates, advocates for reliability.  

We are the media capital of the world -- we do have a big need for reliability to keep the studios running here, so that was also very important.  

We had four community meetings at various locations in Burbank to solicit community input. We had nine stakeholder meetings and I also met as much as possible with other entities I wanted to meet and talk to me offline about the resource planning.  

One of the most important things we did here was we really had a series of what is an IRP?Why do we have to do it? What are the regulations in California?  

We repeatedly messaged on that, so entities that came to these meetings would understand that it is a compliance requirement, but it also helps us set a 20-year path forward to meet renewable mandates, to meet greenhouse gas emissions mandates, but also to keep the lights on.  

So that was very important to get the input.  

We also did a community survey.  We had over -- I think it was 952 responses to that survey, out of 55,000 account holders here -- doesn't seem like a lot but the previous places  I worked, we didn't get that many, so this was really attributed a lot to our marketing group, our strategy group for putting that out there and really getting that input.  

Ultimately the scenarios that came out in terms of where we're going to go in the future, there were two outcomes.

We are part of the Los Angeles balancing authority.  

We are not part of the California Independent System Operator, which has the majority of the transmission system in California.  

So we partnered with L.A., looking at their publicly available long term transmission planning process and one of our IRP scenarios is to focus on transmission buildout to have access to wind and solar to the east of us, geothermal to the south of us, to really meet those renewable mandates, but also focus on transmission builds.

And then secondly, we did focus on baseload energy, which is energy that is capable of running 24/7.

So we also supported investment in a small modular reactor outside the state of California.  

Those have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for use in the United States, but we're looking where we have transmission to potentially partnering with other entities to bring a small modular reactor or SMR to life to provide energy in the future.

Paul Ciampoli
A couple of follow up questions, if I could.

I just want to take advantage of the fact that [you have] deep experience in terms of resource planning.  

So the first one is -- obviously the energy world has been constantly changing for a long time, but it strikes me that in this day and age there's a lot more fluidity in terms of state mandates, spikes in power demand that maybe were not foreseen a couple of years ago.

In that context and with your experience, do you think it's fair to say that IRP planning is a little more challenging these days?

Mandip Samra
It’s very challenging.  

The aftermath of COVID was just major delays in renewable developments.  

A lot of projects we had planned, we were actively [negotiating], actually fell off the table.  

The prices increased from...2019 to what [they are] now, we're seeing a 2 to 2 1/2 fold increase in renewable costs, which will eventually lead to rate increases as well.  

But we're also seeing massive delays due to supply chain issues, labor issues, getting the delivery of parts to build our resources and the interconnection queues with every balancing authority is very challenging.  

So you just have years of delays, which makes it a challenge to really meet the renewable mandates, but also to meet the energy needs of the future.  

California has a big push for electrification.

Our load is expected to nearly double from about 1,000 gigawatt hours to about 1,800 in the next 20 years. So how am I going to meet that?  How am I going to find some baseload resources too?

We have a combined cycle on our campus -- a very efficient combined cycle Magnolia Power project...it's half steam, half natural gas.

What am I going to do with that resource in the future? What technologies are going to be available? Do I focus on hydrogen for that? Do I look to redo that resource?  

There's just a lot of things on the table that we're still trying to figure out.

Paul Ciampoli
It strikes me in general that IRPs are all about trade-offs and what's best for the utilities and customers, right?  

But customer X may say well, why are you picking solar over wind, for example.

So I would imagine that part of the challenge with IRP development is making sure that the external parties such as customers understand that this is a series of tradeoffs?

Mandip Samra
Yes.  One of the things that we did when we had our stakeholder meetings -- the first three meetings were talking about our resources, how they run.  

And we also talked about the series of Heat Dome events we've had in California. We've had three years of really high temperatures during weeks at a time and what happened to those resources when we needed them most.

So one of our solar resources  -- sometimes when there's cloud cover, it goes down from 40 megawatts all the way down to zero in a matter of one hour.

Then we talked about one of our baseload resources that's consistent, but is a little bit more expensive and we talked about our steam generator...combined cycle -- how they all work together to create that balance of load.  

But also Senate Bill 350, which was passed in 2015 here in California, one of the things it talks about is diversification of resources, so you can't just put all your eggs in the solar basket or the wind basket.  

You really do have to look at geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, wind, solar, solar coupled with batteries because that's the only way you're not going end up in a paradigm of having a cloudy day...and having all your resources go offline. You need those batteries.  

The other issue we talk about too is diversification of length of resources.  

So making sure they're spread out -- you may have some 15-year contracts, some 30-year contracts. You don't want them to all expire at the same time...so when the production cost modeling was happening with the IRP, I had to do a lot of manual work to make sure that the resources weren't all in one location -- that we had that diversification.  

So that's the other challenge -- you need to have diversified resources just in case you have a cloudy day or there's a fire in the location and all the resources are out, there's no transmission access, so we really worked hard to make sure [there was] diversification.

Paul Ciampoli
Mandip, this has been really illuminating and stimulating conversation.  

I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with us and we'd love to have you back as a guest, perhaps sometime around this time next year to revisit these and other topics.

Mandip Samra
Thank you so much and I do just want to say thank you to APPA for the great partnerships and just being supportive of public power. We really appreciate that.

Paul Ciampoli
Thanks for listening to this episode of Public Power Now, which is produced by Julio Guerrero, graphic and digital designer at APPA.

I'm Paul Ciampoli and we'll be back next week with more from the world of public power.

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