CityAge: Future-Proofing Los Angeles Given the Volatility of Weather Events

Ron Nichols


As wildfires and extreme weather conditions ravage California, a recent CityAge convening brought together utility experts from around Southern California to discuss how to build a more resilient region. Moderated by Guy Lipa, Strategic Advisor for Flo Technologies, the panel included Ron Nichols, (pictured) President, Southern California Edison; Jeffrey Kightlinger, General Manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Nancy Sutley, Chief Sustainability and Economic Development Officer, LADWP; and Geoffrey Danker, Franchise, Fees & Planning Manager, Southern California Gas Company. In the below VX News excerpt, the esteemed panel addressed how Southern California needs to increase energy storage capacity, reduce reliance on imported water and the declining Colorado River, and invest in more responsive infrastructure to dangerous weather threats.

Guy Lipa: As a region, Southern California is prone to natural disasters—fire, drought, earthquakes, and the effects of global warming and sea-level rise.  Ron, you represent a utility that is essential to our regional economy. What lessons have you learned from recent weather related events, and how are you and SCE thinking about the essential economic role of utilities as you plan for the impacts of climate change?

Ron Nichols: On one hand, we’re doing everything we can to reduce the emissions that impact climate change. At the same time, we’re dealing with incredible volatility in weather. We’re now trying to adapt to climate change at the same time that we’re trying to reduce its effects.

Three years back, California had a long string of dry years. Then we came back with a record wet year; the Eastern Sierra had 200 percent of its average snowfall. We then went right into another extraordinarily dry period with very high temperatures.

In December, the Santa Ana winds—which we never have in December—brought 12 days of incredibly high winds across a good portion of our territory, and unbelievable dryness and humidity at the same time. Having all this back-to-back is the type of thing that we’re going to have to deal with more and more.

SCE already does a good job with long-term planning work. But that long-term planning work now has to adjust to much more volatile changes than we’ve had to deal with in the past. We’re comfortable with earthquake resiliency and emergency planning. But these kinds of changes—wind, incidences of very high short bursts of precipitation, and major snowfall—and this kind of variability is clearly going to be the “new normal” that we have to adjust to.

Guy Lipa: Nancy, how is Los Angeles currently thinking about water supply management given the extremes of climate and weather events?

Nancy Sutley: As Ron said, we’re adjusting to a new normal. California has always experienced wet and dry cycles and extended drought, but the extreme swings are hard to deal with. This reinforces the need for long-term water management strategies—starting with conservation.

Conservation is something that LA and Southern California have done incredibly well on over the years. Across the region, we use the same or less water than we did 30-40 years ago—even though we have a million more people in the city of LA and millions more across the region. Conservation is also something we can toggle up and down quickly, which is harder to do with infrastructure that requires capital investments. It has to continue to be our No. 1 response.

Another thing we can do across the region is look increasingly to local water supply. Importing water helped California grow and will be a cornerstone of California’s continued economic success, but we have local sources of water that we are developing, can develop, and should develop. We can capture more stormwater and not let it all run off into the ocean and rinse the pollution off our streets into our waterways. Increasingly, we’re looking at recycled water and reusing our treated wastewater. Those plans, both in the city of LA and across the region, are really taking off.

This is a way to build resilience to a number of different types of threats. It helps us with the volatility and fundamental changes in the hydrological cycle that we’re starting to see as a result of climate change. It helps us in the event of an earthquake that could potentially disrupt our water imports, whether from the LA Aqueduct or through the Met system. And it helps us continue to grow as a region regardless of long-term climate trends.

Guy Lipa: Geoff, for a long time, utility conservation was the low-hanging fruit of climate adaptation; some of that now has been tapped. Is there still low-hanging fruit out there? Are there still small things SoCalGas can do to make a big impact, or have the impacts on infrastructure of natural disasters caused a strategic reappraisal?

Geoffrey Danker: There is still low-hanging fruit. We are doing a lot of data collection right now at SoCalGas. We recently hired ICF International to conduct studies on natural disasters that have taken place throughout the country—Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey, the Northern California fires, and the Southern California fires and subsequent mudslides. We are investing heavily in understanding the impacts of these various natural disasters to our natural gas infrastructure and our energy infrastructure as a whole.

The next step, and the tough part, is collaboration. As cities and counties start developing adaptation strategies and resiliency plans—as they will soon be required to do under SB 379—what’s that communication going to look like? Where are city planners going to get the information to develop these strategies?

As a planner who’s now in the energy world, I think there’s often a communication breakdown between energy folks and city planners. Planners are used to talking primarily to housing and transportation folks, and perhaps hitting up utilities for energy use data. But these discussions around resiliency and adaptation are new for a lot of city planning departments. One of the difficult problems now is how we are going to collaborate as a community and bring everyone into the room to sit around the table and talk about different impacts, resources, and strategies.

Guy Lipa: Jeff, talk about how MWD is using technology to conserve and manage water supply given the stresses on infrastructure caused by California’s “new normal”.

Jeff Kightlinger: The Metropolitan Water District is the largest water wholesaler for the region; we bring in 50-55 percent of all the water used here. It comes from a long way away—from the Colorado River, 250 miles to the east, or the Northern Sierras, 400 miles to the north.

That type of movement of water requires incredibly large-scale infrastructure, and it usually takes 10-20 years to think through these big projects, get them funded and financed, get them permitted, and get them built. That’s a long lead time to work with, and we’re finding that we can use technology and other innovations, not to replace these large projects, but to buy us time.

Conservation doesn’t make new water. What it does is make the water that we have last longer, which can buy us the decade or so that we need to think through the next wave of infrastructure. That is critically important.

We are using data to manage demand in the region. We used to have really high peak demands in the summer, and then we’d shut down in the winter months. In August we’d sometimes sell 90,000 acre-feet a day, while in February, we’d sell 1,500 acre-feet. That meant we had to build all our infrastructure to accommodate 90,000 acre-feet, but we’d only use it to that degree for three weeks a year.

We’ve been able, by managing local supplies and building connections, to smooth out that demand. Now our typical high is about 5,000 acre-feet a day, and our lows are about 2,000, so we no longer have to build infrastructure for incredibly high months. That was done by building smarter infrastructure and getting people not to peak so much in the summer.

Guy Lipa: Ron, talk about the future of the current energy mix and how Southern California is thinking about what a utility looks like in the long term. What do you see as solutions and impediments to California achieving its GHG emission goals?

Ron Nichols: We recently put out our view on where we think California needs to go in order to achieve its goal of getting to 40 percent below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Today, power supply is less than 20 percent of total GHG emissions across the state, and a much smaller percentage of pollutants that affect human health. By 2030, power supply will be less than 10 percent.

We anticipate that we’re going to need to get to 80 percent carbon-free power supply across the state by 2030, and we think that’s achievable. Once we do that, we’ll have an incredibly clean source of electric energy. We’re still going to have to rely on natural gas to meet our heating requirements until somebody comes up with some new technologies. But we’re also going to need a lot of battery storage.

We need to add something like 10,000 megawatts of energy storage statewide. To put that in context, it’s more than 1.5 times the peak load of LADWP. It’s a lot, but we think it’s achievable. And once we do that, we’ll have a reliable and clean supply. We can then displace other end uses of fossil fuels, particularly transportation.

Transportation—between transportation emissions themselves and refining the fuel—is north of 45 percent of the total GHG emissions in the state. We’ve been working on infrastructure for charging electric vehicles, and we’re working with the Port of Long Beach on transit and medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

We also need to work on buildings and reducing the amount of natural gas we use for heating water and space heating. We see that being somewhere around 30 percent by 2030. Put all of this together, and you’ve got something that we believe can affordably meet the requirements of state’s carbon reduction legislation.

Guy Lipa: Geoff, what’s the future of the natural gas industry in California and how do you see SoCalGas evolving given the State’s focus on carbon reduction?

Geoffrey Danker: We’re working on decarbonizing the pipeline in a few different ways. The easiest one is just using less. We’re working on energy efficiency with highly efficient furnaces, water heaters, and cooking equipment. We’re also looking at renewable natural gas.

As the Air Resources Board has shown, the vast majority of methane emissions in California comes from this decomposition in wastewater treatment facilities, landfills, dairies, and agriculture. I feel strongly that if we are going to make long-term progress on greenhouse gas emissions, we need a solution for this methane. SoCalGas is working on capturing methane—which is 25 times as potent as CO2—and finding other uses for it.

Last summer, we opened a joint facility in Perris, California, which captures green bin waste from multiple cities and converts it to renewable natural gas. This not only fuels their waste-hauling vehicles, but also gets injected directly into the pipeline to lower the carbon content.

Another technology we’re excited about is power-to-gas. In the middle of the day, solar production outpaces demand. This solution takes that excess renewable energy and runs it through an electrolyzer, leaving a hydrogen molecule that can fuel electric vehicles, store energy, or be injected directly into the pipeline. Power-to-gas technology is very popular in Germany and Europe, and we’re looking at it on a microgrid at UC Irvine and a project with Enrel in Colorado.

Guy Lipa: Nancy, you are heavily involved in the electrification of transportation at DWDP and in Los Angeles. How do you balance the reduction of carbon from burning fossil fuels with the reduction of carbon from generating electricity for the transportation sector?

Nancy Sutley: Electrification is an incredibly important strategy. In a way, it shifts emissions from the transportation sector to the electricity sector. As the grid gets cleaner, that’s a better and better deal for the atmosphere and for our lungs.

When it comes to passenger cars, pretty much every automaker now offers electric vehicles. We are developing a comprehensive program to help ensure that there’s enough electric charging infrastructure available to make people feel comfortable buying electric vehicles. We’re taking advantage of city facilities for this. For example, we’ve installed a number of vehicle chargers at libraries and police stations, where there are public parking lots. Recently, our Crenshaw service center put in about 20 charging stations.

We also offer rebates and incentives, and we are looking at different pricing strategies to better match how people consume electricity when they’re putting it in their vehicle as opposed to when they use it in their homes or business.

We also have to be proactive in driving down emissions from transit and our ports and airport. The heavy-duty vehicles that move goods and freight around the region are the largest sources of pollution in the LA Basin, so there’s a real opportunity to make an impact. We want to help transit agencies, the airport, and others change over their fleets.

On the other side, utilities have to plan for these vehicles coming. We have to look at our distribution system and power generation to ensure that we are prepared for all the different electric things that are going to be running around our region.

Guy Lipa: Jeff, lastly, in terms of future-proofing the region against the doom and gloom of climate change prognostications, what can we be hopeful for? When you look to the future, what are you excited about?

Jeff Kightlinger: Water is always going to be a tricky issue in California. We’ve put a lot of people where the water doesn’t naturally go, so we always have to find ways to move it and collect it and so forth. Climate change is just going to make it that much more challenging.

But there is good news. It used to be very energy-intensive to recycle or desalinate water. That has come down by about half, and it’s still dropping. We’re finding more and more technologies that help with that.

We’re also playing with exciting technologies to decentralize water. Right now, we get it from very big infrastructure projects. Assuming we still get some rain in Southern California in the future, we can start to collect and use that in a more localized manner. There are also a lot of technologies coming online that will enable each home to become more efficient, self-sustaining, and reliable.

Over the next 25 years, as Southern California continue to grow, we believe we can still manage within our existing resources. After all, we’ve done it for the last 25 years. In 1990, Metropolitan sold 2.4 million acre-feet for 14 million people across six counties. This year, we’re going to sell 1.7 million acre-feet—25 percent less—for 19 million people. We expect to continue that trend. Southern California is going to have 25 million people by 2050, and we believe we can manage that population with our existing resources.

“We anticipate that we’re going to need to get to 80 percent carbon-free power supply across the state by 2030, and we think that’s achievable.” – Ron Nichols, SCE President