United States Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm speaks with Gene Rodrigues as he is sworn in as assistant energy secretary for electricity at a recent ceremony in Washington D.C.

The General Assembly is an opportunity for thought leaders to gather, share ideas and discuss important issues that impact the South Bay subregion of Los Angeles County. The theme for this year’s event is “The South Bay: Leading the Way in Resilience and Adaptability.” The program will explore how the South Bay is adapting to conflicting growth goals and the potential impacts of increasing climate events to create a more resilient future.

This year’s keynote speaker will be Gene Rodrigues, who was recently appointed as assistant secretary for electricity within the United States Department of Energy by President Joe Biden. Rodrigues began his career as a teacher, but his passion to “do justice” led him to return to school and study law. One of his first cases as a lead attorney was to represent a California utility in its efforts to revitalize the state’s lagging energy efficiency programs. Over two decades, he rose from practicing regulatory law to overseeing one of the nation’s largest portfolios of demand-side management (DSM) programs. DSM programs plan, implement and monitor activities of electric utilities to encourage consumers to modify
their electricity use.

Prior to his new post he served eight years as vice president in the Energy, Environment and Infrastructure practice of ICF, a global advisory and digital services provider.

As a warmup for the event, South Bay Watch invited Rodrigues to answer a few questions on topics to be discussed.

Q. First, congratulations are your recent appointment as assistant secretary for electricity. What are your top goals in your new role?

A. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with the elected officials who serve those of us who are blessed to live here in the South Bay. My goals as assistant secretary for electricity are multifaceted, but it all comes down to this: America needs a 21st century grid to meet the challenges facing us today and to maintain our nation’s energy, economic and
environmental leadership on the world stage. My team in the Office of Electricity is working closely with industry and other stakeholders to drive technological, analytical, economic, structural and operational advancements that will increase the reliability, resilience, security, flexibility, adaptability and affordability of our nation’s energy grid.

Q. The state’s goal is to achieve carbon neutrality and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 85% below 1990 levels by 2045 to address climate change. This goal presents conflicts we’d like to explore. The big issue is the question of adequacy and reliability of the electric grid to handle increased use of electric vehicles, as well as electric appliances, such as air conditioning. Related are consumer complaints centered around blackouts due to environmental factors (high winds blowing trees into power lines, extreme heat, wildfires, etc.). What are strategies for creating a seamless and sustainable transition to electricity for the consumer?

A. As a California resident, I’m proud that our state joins the Biden-Harris Administration in recognizing the imperative to address climate change. And I would add that, in addition to addressing climate change, a modernized and expanded American energy network is also foundational for securing our country’s continued economic leadership and national security, while also providing prosperity, safety and quality of life for our citizens. So, how do we manage the transition in front of us? I think we need to keep two principles in mind. First, we need to recognize that, for all the reasons I just mentioned, we must be “all in” on modernizing the grid so that it enables the future we want. Second, our focus must be on how the energy transition affects people as much as it is on policy or technology. 

Q. Zooming out a bit, there are some who might say the state and country are moving too quickly away from fossil fuels toward cleaner sources of energy, out of concern that this would result in higher fuel prices and loss of energy-sector jobs. What do you think is the best way to approach this transition?

A. After President Biden nominated me, I had the honor of being confirmed for my position by unanimous consent of the Senate. During that process, I met with senators from both sides of the aisle and, in every single conversation, regardless of that state’s energy mix and policies, we shared an understanding that a secure and resilient power grid is vital to national security, economic prosperity, and services the American people depend upon in their homes and businesses. With that as common ground, I believe it allows us to envision transition pathways that harness American ingenuity and the productivity of American workers to lead the global transition to a clean energy economy. 

Q. California is often an environmental policy leader, but it’s finding conflicts and barriers. For example, installing solar panels and wind turbines will require use of land valuable as wildlife habitat, sacred to indigenous people, or used for food production. How should we balance priorities, and what do you view as the primary future source(s) for sustainable energy?

A. The issues you have highlighted are exactly the types of considerations taken under review during the regulatory process. As a personal aside, when I practiced regulatory law before the California Public Utilities Commission, I was always impressed by the level of commitment exhibited by all parties in the process to finding an appropriate balance of interests for all stakeholders. As to which energy sources will power our future, I can only tell you what my team at the Office of Electricity and I focus on every day: we want every American to have access to a 21st century grid that can and will enable any energy future our country pursues.

Q. While at ICF you served as a liaison between local governments and utilities. How can our local governments, utilities and communities work better together to respond to (instead of reacting to) potentially escalating climate change events and to advance climate goals more rapidly?

A. Your question hits the nail on the head. We—citizens, local governments, utilities, and other stakeholders (including U.S. DOE)—must become more adept at communicating and collaborating early and often in the resource and grid planning processes. The challenges facing us are becoming increasingly complex and far too common. If we hope to accelerate beneficial action, our first step together must be a commitment to collective understanding, planning and commitment

Q. Wrapping up with a fun question, if you could design our conference, what direction should the discussion take to advance the energy dialogue?

A. I have two thoughts on this. First, every session and every conversation should end with, “So, what are we going to do about it?” Issue identification is interesting, but it’s the creation of solution pathways that will make the conference truly important. Second, here’s a topic that I think the South Bay is well-positioned to drive thought leadership on: How can the South Bay cities—working with their citizens, their utilities and other stakeholders—harness the full potential of grid edge resources to improve reliability and bolster resilience?

Q. Finally, why should we be optimistic about the future of electricity?

A. American ingenuity. There is no doubt that all the leading economies of the world are at the starting line of a race to drive the global transition toward a clean energy economy. America is well-positioned to win that race because, with American ingenuity, we can envision the transition here, design it here, manufacture it here, and deploy it everywhere. •