LA County’s Minh Le on Creating Clean Jobs, Increasing Efficiency & Deleting the Digital Divide

Minh Le

As General Manager of Energy & Environmental Services for LA County’s Internal Services Department, Minh Le works to improve the efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability of LA’s county assets and facilities. As former director of the SunShot Initiative at the United States Department of Energy, VX News interviews Minh Le for his perspective on both how LA County initiatives and federal investments in clean energy can drive resilient and equitable economic recovery and how deleting the digital divide is a top priority for ‘building back better’ in Los Angeles.

Elaborate on your role as General Manager of Energy and Environmental Services for LA County and how it's evolved over your tenure.

Minh Le: Since I've been with the county for just over three years now, we've worked on a few very important pillars. First, we've tried to improve the energy efficiency of county facilities. The county spends roughly $200 million a year on utility expenses—including electricity, natural gas, water, and sewer—to heat and cool the vast number of county facilities and campuses across our large territory. We're always trying to find ways to reduce our energy use and therefore our expense, which frees capital for other social programs that the county provides.

We're also trying to constantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and we do that through a number of efforts—not just reducing the energy intensity of our buildings, but also adding renewable energy and clean transportation options. And finally, the third pillar is clean transportation and shifting our fleets towards more electrified transportation as those become options available.

Earlier this year we completed four large solar projects on county properties: the Martin Luther King Community Hospital, the Department of Public Works headquarters, the Registrar’s headquarters, and the Internal Services Department headquarters for a total of about 4.5 megawatts and are expanding solar around county facilities as well.

We're also challenged with responding to resiliency challenges. In the past couple of years, public safety power shutoffs, wildfires, and other stresses on the electricity grid have impacted our region and put many parts of our facilities without power for some period of time. We have to rethink and deploy new resources in order to ensure that the county can continue to deliver services, irrespective of what's happening out there. There's a lot, and we haven't even touched on COVID and how things have changed.

And LA County’s energy efficiency and solar initiatives that you have stewarded over the last three years?

Prior to my time with the county, I worked at the federal level at the Solar Office at the Department of Energy. When I came here, I realized that the county had a lot of opportunities to expand upon solar and reduce our carbon footprint in a very cost-effective way. Shortly after I came on board to the county, I worked on securing power purchase agreements for a number of sites that I mentioned previously, and those sites are expected to save the county over $12.5 million over the lifetime. Building on that success, the Board of Supervisors recently approved the expansion of an existing solar array up in Lancaster from 2 MW to 10 MW. This new project is anticipated to save the County more than $17 million over the lifetime of the system and have tremendous GHG footprint reduction as well.  Going Green, saves green which allows the County to better serve our residents.

Minh, most agree that building energy efficiency remains a challenge.  Elaborate on your approach to assuring  LA County’s facilities are sustainably constructed/powered.

Building energy efficiency is definitely a really challenging area, but I think my team has looked at how we approach the problem. We are entrusted by the California Public Utilities Commission with funds to run the Southern California regional energy network. We focus on building energy efficiency in the multifamily, as well as the public sector. In 2019, we made tremendous headway; we improved our performance in the metric that the CPUC tracks closely, total resource cost (TRC), by 62 percent year over year. That's a very significant year-over-year improvement in TRC and our highest performance ever. We implemented strategies to more closely engage with the public sector and amplify the resources that we have to address building energy efficiency.

Prior to COVID, we were implementing some really innovative strategies that changed the game in terms of building energy efficiency.  We worked closely with multi-family property owners, especially those in disadvantaged communities, common space and in unit energy efficiency upgrades. It's hard to do, it's slow, and the building stock turnover time is very long, but we took some really good approaches and educated and incentivized the property owners to improve their buildings. Now, under COVID with the halt of construction and business activity, that work is slowed down this past year, but we do expect that to recover into the latter half of 2021.

The county itself is also embarking on a very significant facilities reinvestment program and we partner with our colleagues managing thar program, which totals around $750 million. They do building upgrades with an energy efficiency mindset, so we are working collaboratively to achieve higher building performance when we do those upgrades within the county.

Is achieving higher building performance a result of technological advances, public policy, or financial incentives? What's the mix that leads to the accelerated energy efficiency?

I think all of those are needed in some form or another. Technology advances underpins the work that we do.  If technology improvements were not there, we would simply replace equipment with like for like when they break down and the energy consumption would not change.  But with technological advances over the past decades, energy intensive systems such as HVAC and lighting have become much more efficient, in some cases, by several times, which can significantly reduce the overall energy intensity of our buildings.  Building code changes every 3 years pushes new construction and major retrofits to adopt the latest technologies but to further accelerate adoption, you also need to encourage building owners to look beyond the CAPEX cost and think longer term in saving OPEX.  Financial engineering with third part financiers can help, but financial incentives are often necessary to push decision makers to make improvements before they otherwise would.  In particular, public facilities tend to be older than commercial properties. So, even just bringing existing buildings up to the latest Title 24 Code, has significant benefits to the performance and energy consumption of those properties.

Share a progress report on L.A. County's current sustainability plan, which includes 5,000 EV charging stations by 2025 and even more by 2035? Given COVID and the economic challenges that the County faces, is that plan still on course?

Yes, I'm so excited. This is one area where the county is making tremendous progress. I set a pretty ambitious goal to have 5,000 recharging stations by 2025 as part of the sustainability plan that the county released. At the time, the county had something like 350 or so EV charging stations, and we built those over a period of like five or six years. At the rate we're going right now, we're actually approaching installing roughly 1000 per year, which is what we need to do in order to get to 5,000 by 2025. At the end of this year, I expect to have an additional 1,000. I'm actually very impressed with my team for achieving what I thought was a very ambitious goal given the historical precedence of 50 or so charging stations per year and increasing that by 10 to 20-fold.

Given EV charging infrastructure is deemed essential to the county’s climate goals; is there a valued place for fuel cells/infrastructure as an alternative to electric charging?

I attended a ribbon cutting a few months ago in Downtown LA, where there was a public-private partnership for a natural gas refueling station. From a personal standpoint, I think electric vehicles make a lot of sense for the light duty fleet, but hydrogen is a very viable option for heavy duty. Given the fact that 40 percent of the imports coming to the US go through the ports in the LA region, there's tremendous opportunity to reduce GHG and diesel particulate emissions including NOx and SOx with fuelcell heavy duty freight transportation.

Pivoting to the role of the role of Federal Government,  what do you expect from the new Biden administration & Congress as it relates to energy policy?

LA County residents, like people in all communities across the country, are hurting from COVID and the economic impacts of the pandemic. It's not a surprise that a few of the top priorities that the Biden transition team has identified focus on responding to COVID, keeping our communities safe from COVID, as well as the economic recovery that's needed in order to support the livelihoods of people all over the country.

The third priority is around racial equity and inclusion, and the fourth, and importantly so, is climate change. The way I look at it, from LA County's perspective, all of these things are interconnected: the economic impact is really from COVID, but responding to climate change and introducing racial equity and inclusion in responding to climate change will actually enable us to respond to COVID and help the economy recover.

In 2019 before the pandemic, in California, there were over half a million jobs in the clean energy sector, representing about one-seventh of all the clean energy jobs nationally, and it was growing at about 22 percent per year according to E2. That's about 10-times faster job growth rate than the California’s overall economy, so it's no surprise that the Biden team realizes that there's a huge opportunity in clean energy jobs as a way to rebuild the economy. A focus around clean energy and job creation in the clean energy jobs sector is important to building back better with cleaner infrastructure.

Here in LA County, on my own team, we're doing things like creating green career pathways. Last month, we launched a Green Career Pathways program to support workforce development for transitioning former foster youth. We're training former foster youth to enter the clean energy field and providing internships that will enable them to get long term careers in the energy field. That's a big focus of my program.

My department is also looking at the digital divide and launching a new effort called Delete the Divide.  COVID has exacerbated the disparities in our society.  Distance learning really only works when everyone has access to technology. Not everyone has Wi-Fi access or even access to computers, so we're partnering with our libraries and other public spaces to provide more public and outdoor Wi-Fi access and create more opportunities for our students to learn.

I see training programs like the Green Career Pathways Program as part of a strategy for deleting the digital, racial, and economic opportunity divide. What we're doing in the county and the state are very aligned with the focus on responding to climate change and its economic and job-creation impact.

But we also need strong federal leadership around investing in infrastructure, especially clean energy infrastructure, so we can build back better.  I believe that the new Biden administration will prioritize these investments to help communities all across the country.

And your expectations of what aid State Government will offer LA County?

The COVID recession has greatly impacted both state and local budgets dramatically.  Economic activity was necessarily halted to increase social distancing while local and state governments needed to increase services as a response to COVID.  For example, there is tremendous stress on our public health resources, in terms of testing, contact tracing, and now vaccine distribution, let alone the stress on our hospitals.  The state has been a great partner and recognizes the challenges at the local level, but there is always more that needs to be done but I believe that we need more leadership out of Washington to help both states and local governments recover.   We’re on the front lines trying to reinvigorate the economy while responding to COVID and we need the financial resources to do that.  The deeper we respond to COVID, the faster we all get out of this. 

In terms of energy, the state through the CPUC and the California Energy Commission has laid out some important plans that I am excited about to help our community become more resilient via microgrids and to significantly increase our EV infrastructure.  This is what leadership looks like, laying out a bold vision and making investments to support that vision.

Comment on the ability/capacity of the federal government to advance climate change goals through national policy and incentives—to pick up where it left off. 

There are still some incentives, but they're ramping down as the tax advantages are diminishing as part of the tax bill that was passed in 2016 and recently extended in the CARES ACT. I said this in my first interview with you, all forms of energy have incentives of some form whether it's explicit or implicit in the tax code. Fossil fuel industries have tremendous tax incentives, like master limited partnerships, depletion, and tax write-offs that may not be so obvious, but they are real.

There are certainly incentives in the clean energy space, including solar and wind, but those are ramping down and you can see from the bids at the wholesale rates that solar and wind energy are competing directly, and in fact, they're often the best choice. The tax advantages are important, but they're less important nowadays because the cost of these technologies are improving day by day.

Lastly, from your LA County platform, if you were to suggest one or two initiatives that the Biden team could introduce in his first months in office to accelerate the adoption of renewables, what would recomment?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was $900 billion and made a tremendous impact in the clean energy space. At the time of the 2008-2009 economic recession, the country was in pretty bad shape, but today, because of COVID, we are in worse shape. Congress has already approved well over $3 trillion of economic recovery and we're still in a hole.

 

The economic impact of this recession is way worse than what we saw in 2008, but Biden was actually in charge of the Recovery Act during the Obama administration. There's a very strong playbook in there that allowed for shovel-ready projects in clean energy to be built rapidly, which helped facilitate the cost reduction that we see today. Today is very different from what it was 12 years ago, and I think that a Recovery Act-like approach to infrastructure deployments to build back better will help with job creation, economic recovery, and set the nation and our region on the path towards a sustainable future.

“Today is very different from what it was 12 years ago, and I think that a Recovery Act-like approach to infrastructure deployments to build back better will help with job creation, economic recovery, and set the nation and our region on the path towards a sustainable future.”—Minh Le

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