December 2, 2019 - From the December, 2019 issue

LA County’s Minh Le on Scaling the Region’s New Energy Economy

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently adopted its first countywide sustainability plan, OurCounty, it addresses resilience, sustainability, and equity. Here, VXNEWS interviews LA County Energy and Environmental Service’s General Manager Minh Le on his countywide departmental priorities for moving forward in light of recent technological advancements in solar and energy storage. Le clarifies for readers how solar has become not only the environmentally-friendly choice, but also the most cost-effective choice for power procurement in the region.


"As the industry has driven costs down and made its economic case, it's not just an environmental choice. If you look at it from dollar-and-cents standpoint, solar is the obvious choice to make." —Minh Le

Minh, it's been more than a year since our last interview. Clearly the fires and the response of the state’s utilities have impacted your responsibilities as the GM of Energy and Environmental Services for LA County. As millions of people are without power in California on account of PG&E’s decision to de-energize their power lines, the Getty fire, among others, is raging in LA this week. Such “new-normal” climate events make energy resiliency an immediate public priority. How is LA County, under your GM leadership, addressing energy resilience and self-reliance in the face of these threats to the electrical grid?

Minh Le: Thanks for that question, I think you framed it really well. California has always had wildfire seasons, but we're seeing that, in the recent history, these fire seasons are lasting longer and they're more severe, likely related to climate change. That being the case, I think we're seeing—up in Northern California and also down here—the relatively recent issues around liability for wildfires. The IOUs and the state recognize that the electrical infrastructure across the region is a strong contributor and has historically been a cause of a number of major wildfires. Because of that, the IOUs are taking much more aggressive, proactive steps to de-energize segments of lines in high wildfire danger areas with high wind where fires could potentially get started.

From a public safety standpoint, I think it’s an important step, but obviously it presents challenges to the region. Businesses, homeowners, and governments rely on electricity that’s provided by the utilities in order to operate. It’s sometimes a life or death situation for homeowners that have to rely on electricity for medical equipment. Government facilities also rely on electricity from a public safety standpoint and for the continuity of operations. For example, we have microwave towers that need power that serve our first responders, and they’re typically located on mountaintops, which could be exposed to fire danger. There are a lot of facilities that we have from the county asset standpoint that need to have resiliency in light of extreme events, like wildfires, earthquakes, etc.

We generally have backups for those critical facilities, but given that the public safety power shutoff is a new norm, we are evaluating our energy assets to make sure that the most critical facilities are resilient to these events. Historically, generator backup at buildings was not meant to be there to continue to operate the building at 100 percent, but to allow people to evacuate the facility and, in the case of hospitals, to support very critical support loads.

With the county rethinking its energy assets in light of the needs of public safety and ongoing service delivery demand by its facilities, what generation, distribution, and storage projects have you prioritized?

If public safety power shutoffs are the new normal, we have to rethink how we provide backup power to our facilities and our campuses. One of those opportunities is introducing on site renewable generation, as well as on site energy storage. That's one of the things that we will be considering and soliciting at our Peter J Pitchess Detention Center complex up in the Castaic area, a 2600 acre site that has interconnection to two different transmission lines and has a substation on campus. It’s one of the first sites that we've been working on for the last year. We are looking to add significant amount of onsite solar generation as well as a very large energy storage capacity that could help supply not only resiliency to the campus but also resource adequacy to the broader region. That project is now about to enter phase two, that will result in construction of solar and energy storage on that campus

Are there other priority facilities or sites that the Internal Services Department has prioritized in addition  to the Peter Pitchess Detention Center?

We’re currently evaluating and bundling on the order of 25 different county facilities that are well suited for on-site solar and battery storage. There are economies of scale when we go out for solicitations for solar and battery storage, and so we're trying to bundle about 25 facilities across the county together in that next solicitation.

When the county—given its physical size, its budget, and its needs—goes out to procure both solar generation and battery storage, what if any impact do its procurements for technology have on the marketplace? Does it move the dial, lower the price, or create a new generation of technology?

If what we're soliciting for at our Pitchess Detention Center complex were built today, it would probably be a top 10 or top 20 project in the country for energy storage; it is that significant. Now, I think the reality is that there are a lot of entities—businesses and governments—aggressively looking at energy storage, so I don't pretend that LA county will be a marketmaker, but we will certainly be a leader when we have this built.

Minh, in addition to solar generation and battery storage, elaborate on your department’s plans for transportation, both fuel and infrastructure?

Thanks for that question, because that's another very important element of the LA County sustainability plan (OurCounty) that was adopted by our Board of Supervisors back in August. The county sustainability plan has a vision of a fossil-fuel-free LA County by 2045, and a significant portion of those goals is around transportation

Transportation itself across California represents about 50 percent of the state’s GHG emissions. Goods movement—heavy duty transportation, freight, etc.—represents the lion's share of smog forming emissions in our region, making our air quality in the LA basin amongst the worst in the country. There are a lot of elements for moving forward on transportation electrification, which is seen as a tremendous opportunity to clean up our air, help the state meet our GHG emissions targets reduction, and meet the county sustainability plan.

There are a few elements of the plan that I would like to highlight, driven by our Chief Sustainability Officer, Gary Gero. The first thing is that we want to do more to move our county fleets towards zero emissions vehicles. So in the plan, it calls for 100 percent of new vehicle purchases for light duty vehicles to be zero emissions, mainly electric, by 2025. And by 2035, for the vast majority of new vehicles, whether it’s light or heavy duty, purchased will be zero emissions. Historically, the county has not made as much progress as I would have liked, because our infrastructure was lacking, for example, around charging. So, we also set very aggressive targets to electrify our campuses with EV infrastructure. We set a goal in the county sustainability plan to have 5000 EV charging stations by 2025 and 15,000 by 2035, which means that we're targeting to have around 10,000 by 2030. Over the next decade, we hope to install roughly 10,000 EV charging stations up from the roughly 400 that we have today.

For the last five to ten years, the county has installed only 400 EV charging stations, where our goal is to get 1000 each year for the next 10 years. Those are very aggressive targets around our fleets and the EV charging infrastructure.

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Will these new EV stations rely on the grid for their electricity or will they be circular in the sense that some or all of the energy will come from the campus buildings themselves?

The county’s facilities—and this is not always the case, but most of our facilities are—are daytime facilities where workplace charging will occur. In fact, we just finished the installation of another 27 EV charging stations at our headquarters, and we also just finished a large solar array installation. Keep in mind, everything is grid connected. We are generating solar electrons on our own campuses and using those solar electrons to power our vehicles. In theory, electrons are fungible; it doesn't really matter where they come from. But in practice we are deploying renewable energy at roughly the same rate that we're deploying EV charging stations.

Minh, given your experience both in Washington, DC and now with LA County, what is the promise of linking and converting your facilities themselves into power plants? Today, a number of New York real estate building owners are doing just that using through proptech. Given your expertise and now role as GM, is this part of your plan?

Definitely. The approach that I imagine a lot of very forward leaning companies are looking at now is how to integrate everything together on the building and renewable energy assets side with stationary storage and loads that will be created by electric vehicle charging. These are all very complex and have different attributes that could work in unison or against each other. From a system-level standpoint, it's better that they all work together. That's actually one of the really cool things in terms of the technology that we are evaluating and deploying for EV charging stations. It is not a simple EV charging station, it actually has the capability to manage loads. It is adaptive power charging; we can set limits and we can shape the load profile.

This is next generation technology that will help enable the greater integration of EV infrastructure onto our grid, and help minimize the cost of the move towards transportation electrification. Imagine a facility where the building energy controller—or building energy management system—is grid aware. Maybe it has renewable energy on it as well, or maybe it has battery storage to help minimize and shave peak demand charges. Likewise, imagine the EV infrastructure being grid aware, so that when you plug in 100 vehicles it does not overly stress the grid. It knows when employee or fleet vehicle needs to be fully charged, and it will appropriately throttle the charging amongst vehicles, so that it minimizes the disruption and the impact of all that energy consumption and/or generation.

This is actually a vision at the Department of Energy that many of us were working toward a decade ago. We put in place the R&D to help companies develop holistic approaches to integrated energy management by integrating renewables with building controls and also with V1G and even V2G technology.

TPR recently interviewed the project manager for the City of Santa Monica’s new City Services Building, Amber Richane. This $80 million dollar new “living” building proports to be, when completed early next year, the most sustainable public building in the world with energy, water, and waste managed on site. Might Santa Monica City’s investment in building sustainability influence energy & facilities plans and management in LA County?

There are a number of efforts going on across the state looking at building electrification, and a number of bills that are being adopted around building electrification. Building codes changes are being adopted both at the state and local level that will support building electrification.. From a county energy assets standpoint, I certainly have to consider the costs associated with electrification, and there are places where it makes a lot of sense. There's also the sustainability standpoint of decarbonization of building heat loads. I have to consider all those things—including capital costs and fuel costs—as we move towards reducing the county's GHG emissions.

The last time we spoke in 2017, the National Renewable Energy Lab had just announced that the average price of utility-scale solar had gone below $1 per watt—or six cents a kilowatt hour—down from $4 a watt in 2011. In September, LADWP reached a 25-year deal with 8Minute Energy for 400 megawatts of solar storage at 3.3 cents per kilowatt hour. Unpack for our readers the significance of this price point change, and what it means for utility-scale solar storage?

Yes, there's no question that the cost of solar and energy storage have come down to the point where it is actually the economic choice. It doesn't make sense—sometimes on a fully depreciated capital asset standpoint—to operate a fossil fuel plant when the alternative is procuring solar and energy storage at 3.3 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s extremely aggressive pricing, and it's a testament to how far the industry has come. It is the obvious choice to make when procuring power now. I think you will see more and more contracts along those lines. As the industry has driven costs down and made its economic case, it's not just an environmental choice. If you look at it from dollar-and-cents standpoint, it is the obvious choice to make.

Lastly, how challenging is it—in a county of 4000 square miles, 10 million people, 88 cities and incorporated areas, and many services—to work across the silos of county government and fulfill your departmental mission?

I would say the county is actually a high-opportunity environment. The reason for that is that there are 37 different county departments and 12 related agencies that have their own mission. Whether to provide public health, public safety, or social services, those are the primary missions of those county departments, and they are laser focused on serving their constituents with their charter.

In general, county departments don't think about their energy usage, sustainability, or GHG emissions emitted during operation, that's my job. My job is to really help the county not look at it through both a sustainability lens, and also through a cost lens. There are a lot of things that we're doing, or trying to do, with our fellow county departments that will help them lower their operational costs. The county's utility budget is over $200 million a year. It's not that large for a county our size, but it's $200 million a year. As citizens, we all pay something into that, and so my charter is how do I control those costs, and do so in a way that is more sustainable—meaning lower GHG emissions—while being more resilient?

That's the exciting challenge; that's what keeps me excited about my team’s job to help transition our county to a more sustainable future. Every dollar that we can save on energy and water is a dollar that can be applied towards homelessness or other critical functions of the county in order to serve the public.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.