All the way back in November, a news item came across the wires indicating that Tropos would be providing the communications for Burbank Water and Power, an ARRA recipient with $20 billion from the DOE and an ambitious smart grid plan to support its even more ambitious renewable generation goals.

In January another press release announced, “Trilliant was selected as the prime contractor for communications infrastructure and head-end software and will be deploying GE smart meters throughout BWP’s service area.”

Oh, that’s interesting, because Tropos said it was providing communications for “electric and water AMI, distribution automation, customer energy demand response, distributed generation and mobile data to the BWP field workforce,” all of which sound like the sort of primary uses of smart grid that a prime contractor might provide communications for.

So which company is linking up the city’s utility to meet a goal of 33 percent renewables on its grid by 2020? Well, both of them.  

Instead of one mesh network, Fred Fletcher, Assistant General Manager of Power Supply at BWP, has been dreaming of dual wireless mesh since 2008.

Way back then, he was already talking to Tropos because his department liked their technology for its security and robustness and ability to scale. During an initial trial, “It performed beautifully,” he recalled.

Trilliant also came into the picture in the same year that BWP, which serves about 100,000 residents, was shopping for AMI solutions. Fletcher had three criteria: one, to be able to predict the accuracy of the meter read with some mathematical certainty; two, to achieve as fast a read as possible; and three, to select meters that were already being produced and used in the marketplace.

In the end, there were only about six vendors that met those requirements, and then Trilliant came up with the final solution. But it still left some concerns about agility and security. “Someone could come up and get on your frequency and wipe it all out,” he said. By using both two networks, one on 802.15.4 and the other using 802.11n, he could get both channelized Wi-Fi and a more broad-spectrum channel. “I’ve got multimode reliability,” he proclaimed.

With fewer errors and more resiliency, Fletcher is confident the dual mesh system will provide what Burbank needs for demand response services and a heavy load of renewables. The municipal utility currently has close to 10 percent in renewable generation.

Fletcher said that misunderstanding might be one of the reasons that more utilities don’t use similar systems from the beginning, although BWP is not alone in its affinity for dual mesh. “People consider it subjective, but it’s not,” he said. “You have to understand power systems, IT and communications.” For BWP, engineers from all of those sectors had input on the system being designed, and like other munis and co-ops, the smart grid system was being designed end-to-end from the beginning, rather than just starting with meters and going from there. He noted that if utilities don’t start with a focus on security and confidentiality, it is tough to add in that functionality later. Along with Trilliant and Tropos, eMeter is delivering data management, Siemens Energy is providing integration with BWP's systems and the meters are from General Electric.

“So far it has performed exactly the way the engineers wanted it to,” says Fletcher, whether it is 30-millisecond meter reads or the data coming off collectors. The best part? “The price of it really wasn’t too bad.”