‘March of inevitability,’ not politics, drives clean energy revolution, Manhattan Beach Deputy Energy Secretary Rodrigues tells South Bay leaders

“It’s not politics that is driving the transition to a clean energy economy. It’s the march of inevitability,” Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Gene Rodriques tells civic leaders at last week’s SBCCOG general assembly. Photo by Philicia Endelman (PhiliciaEndelman.com) 

Gridding for the future

by Kevin Cody

In January, one year after retiring from a 33-year career in the private energy sector, Gene Rodrigues was nominated by President Joseph Biden to lead the Department of Electricity, as the Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary of Energy.

The Manhattan Beach attorney doesn’t know who recommended him to the Biden administration.

“I suspect friends from the clean energy industry,” he said following his keynote address last Thursday to the South Bay Cities Council of Governments. SBCCOG’s 23rd Annual General Assembly was held at the Carson Community Center. 

Rodrigues worked for 23 years at Southern California Edison, where his responsibilities included its solar and alternative energy incentive programs. In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency honored Rodrigues with its first-ever Climate Leadership Award.

The politically divided Senate approved Rodrigues’ nomination unanimously, despite Republicans having cast a party-line No vote just a few months earlier in an unsuccessful effort to block Biden’s $370 billion Inflation Reduction Act. It is the largest climate investment bill in the nation’s history.

“These are politically charged times,” Rodrigues acknowledged during his SBCCOG address. The pun was almost certainly not an accident. His talk was as much motivational as educational.

His commitment to the Senate confirmation committee, and to SBCCOG was to help the U.S. become the world leader in that transition.

“No matter what their politics, every senator I met agreed on the importance of our energy supply,” Rodrigues told the SBCCOG assembly.

“There’s more commonality than differences in what we want,” he said.

Keynote speaker Gene Rodrigues, and SBCCOG executive director Jacki Bacharach. Rodriques is a Manhattan Beach resident, and Assistant Secretary for Energy, Office of Electricity in the U.S. Department of Energy. Photo by Philicia Endelman (PhiliciaEndelman.com)

The Marine Street volleyball player compared climate change deniers to beach tourists trying to hold back the waves.

“One of my favorite things when I play beach volleyball is watching tourists in the water hold their hands up when they are about to get knocked down by a wave, as if their 10 tiny fingers will make a difference,” he said.

“It’s not politics that is driving the transition to a clean energy economy. It’s the march of inevitability. It’s where the world is headed,” Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues described the current electric grid’s fossil fuel generating stations, poles and wires as “19th century engineering with 20th century technology.”

He substituted the word “network” for “grid” to describe a future, “in which power is no longer generated by giant flywheels, but by little things on our roofs.”

During the question and answer period Carson Councilman Jim Dear asked Rodrigues to describe what the nation’s future electrical system will look like.

“The one thing about futurists is they are always wrong,” Rodrigues answered. He noted how a forecast for today’s power needs made 20 years ago could not have foreseen the electric vehicle revolution.

But he added, “Forecasts are often directionally correct.”

The direction is towards decentralization, he said.

“I want every home and business to be a part of a more efficient, constantly fluctuating grid,” he said.

Rodrigues said his job as secretary of the Department of Electricity is to make certain the national electric grid is flexible and secure enough to work with whatever the new, clean power sources are.

 Rodrigues closed his remarks by enlisting his audience’s help in the transition to clean power.

“As a kid I wanted a Sheriff John’s badge because I wanted to be one of his deputies. I didn’t know I didn’t need a badge, that public service isn’t about a title. We all are public servants,” he said.

Rodrigues’ talk was followed by a panel of energy experts whose topic was “Powering the South Bay.”

Locally controlled, microgrids protect against power grid failures, energy policy expert Dr. Lorenzo Kristov argued.

Dr. Lorenzo Kristov, a former Fullbright scholar, and member of the Department of Energy’s Gridwise Architecture Council, expanded on Rodriques’ comment about “every home, and business [being] a part of a more efficient, constantly fluctuating grid.”

To reduce dependency on the nationwide electrical grid, which is increasingly subject to power outages because of climate change, and political unrest, Kristov advocated microgrids owned by local governments, and powered by Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), such as home, and community solar and wind systems.

He cited the Oakland EcoBlock as a model. The residential neighborhood is designed to be energy independent through the use of shared solar panels, shared battery storage, and shared electric vehicles. Its microgrid has a single connection to the nationwide electrical grid.

Microgrids insulate communities from massive grid power outages, he argued.

Kristov called for a statewide alliance of local governments to lobby in support of microgrids.

Microgrids are currently illegal in California, in part because of financial concerns related to their maintenance. 

“A bottom up energy revolution requires local governments and community organizations to take a role in the grid network,” Kristov said. “For that, we  need a push from all of you,” he told his audience.

Green hydrogen will be cheaper than gasoline, Green Hydrogen Coalition founder Janice Lin said. Photos by Philicia Endelman (PhiliciaEndelman.com)

Panelist Janice Lin advocated for microgrids powered by “green” hydrogen. Lin is the founder and president of Green Hydrogen Coalition.

Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe. Hydrogen fuel cells already power cars, trains and ships. But in the U.S., 95 percent of hydrogen fuel production utilizes coal and natural gas. This “black” hydrogen produces carbon emissions.

Green Hydrogen is made from water and renewable energy sources.

The challenge for broader use of green hydrogen, Lin said, is producing it “at scale.” When that happens, she said, green hydrogen will be cheaper than fossil fuels. 

“Green Hydrogen is cheaper than fossil fuel. We can deliver the equivalent of a gallon of diesel for under $1. And the transition to green hydrogen fuel will create jobs and improve air quality,” she said.

“Green hydrogen is the key to ending the fossil fuel era. Plants make energy from water and sun. So can we.”

Calistoga, in Northern California, has a green hydrogen powered microgrid capable of powering 2,000 homes for 48 hours, in the event of a grid power failure.

In El Segundo, the Scattergood Generating Station is transitioning from burning natural gas to burning green hydrogen.

All of Los Angeles could be powered by green hydrogen produced from the city’s wastewater, Lin said.

Panelist Dr. Anthony Michaels spoke about wave and wind energy being studied at AltaSea, in Los Angeles Harbor, where he is an advisor on the Blue Economy. 

AltaSea’s projects include development of a zero emission hydrogen powered USV (unmanned surface vessel) that works at sea without the need to refuel for up to two months.

Rodrigues and the panelists all emphasized the necessity for clean energy to be available to all economic groups.

Panelist Alex Turek noted that low-income families spend four times as much of their income on energy as middle and upper class families. 

His nonprofit GRID Alternatives of Greater Los Angeles has installed solar panels on over  17,000 homes, at no cost to the homeowner, and trained 31,000 clean energy workers.

“The most important thing to me and the Biden/Harris Administration,” Rodrigues said, “is that clean energy comes to every home and business.”

He said he’s not concerned about the cost of transitioning to clean energy.

“It’s not about money. It’s about what kind of life we want to lead.

“A snapshot in time might show greater costs. But in the long term, cleaner energy will bring greater benefits at lower costs to everybody. 

“The inescapable path of engineering and technology is greater efficiency,” Rodrigues said. ER


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