LADWP’s Marty Adams on Sustainability Goals, Promise of Hydrogen, & Career Highlights

Marty Adams

Southern California experienced in 2023 a mix of extreme weather events - tropical storms, heat waves, record snow. Clearly, the new normal is unpredictability, meaning that nothing is guaranteed and there is no time to rest easy when it comes to delivering water and power to America’s second largest city. In this exclusive interview with VX News, Marty Adams, the General Manager & Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, with his retirement on the horizon, reflects on his decades-long career in the public agency, including his efforts to pioneer the national hydrogen energy revolution, as well as developing new strategies for water recycling and stormwater capture.

When you participated in VerdeXchange 2023 this past May, you shared, “When I look at all of LA City’s sustainability goals, about 75 percent of them fall on LADWP to do differently from what we’ve been doing in the past.” Having spent nearly 4 decades with the department – elaborate on LADWP’s central mission and evolving, daily policy and execution challenges.

Marty Adams: When I made that comment, I was talking about how we're dealing with our water and power supplies that have allowed this city to grow from a dusty little town to the second largest city in the country. It’s about being able to provide enough water for the city and increase power resources because, as we know, everything plugs in now. It was about that mix of resources and what changes need to happen. I joked that you see the water engineers who have developed large imported water systems driving back toward Los Angeles on the freeway passing the power engineers on their way out of town looking to develop clean energy projects.

That is because water is coming home. We reached out with the LA Aqueduct and we were the driving force behind the Colorado River aqueduct and the formation of the Metropolitan Water District. Now, on the water side, we're looking at that next source, and we believe the next big source is here at home with recycled water, stormwater capture, and improved groundwater use. So, we find ourselves coming back to our roots in LA. 

At the same time, while water is trying to go sustainable and trying to have less impact on areas that we import from, power’s big ticket items are going to be out of town. There's not enough rooftop solar, no matter what we do, locally. There's not enough battery storage, no matter what we do, locally. When we are talking about utility-scale projects, we need to go out of town with large solar farms, large wind farms, and maybe more geothermal.

Power already has a footprint in six states, but we're increasing that footprint with very large projects of a different nature. It's a real change from fossil fuel plants in town to large-scale renewable projects out of town. That's the change. It is the power resource mix where we see the dynamic changing so much from what it was when I started 40 years ago.

During your tenure leading DWP you pivoted the Department’s InterMountain Power Project to hydrogen. Elaborate on your reasoning, what LADWP’s decision galvanized both domestically and globally, and the promise of a Hydrogen Economy.

Hydrogen is, to me, the fuel of the future, unless there's something else that exists that no one's thought of yet. From what we know, I think it's going to be the silver bullet that's going to get us to where we want to go. The challenge of hydrogen, of course, is going to be the whole new delivery system that doesn't exist yet and trying to create a hydrogen economy at a large enough scale to drive the cost down so that we're not bearing the burden of the high cost.

We were at a board meeting–I don't remember what year it was–and we had a lot going on with the Intermountain Power Project. We had plans to go to hydrogen, and we had a hydrogen study going on, but it was underplayed a little bit. I said, “This is what we're doing,” and I didn't want to hear the word “proposed,” or “thinking about”, or “want to do” any more with regard to the project.

We, at that point, locked in that it was no longer a goal of ours, it was going to be a reality to have a 30 percent hydrogen blend when the Intermountain Power Project came on with new units in 2025. That’s a couple years from now, and that will happen. The units will be able to handle the hydrogen. The hydrogen generation is being constructed and hydrogen storage is being drilled for in the salt dome. 

When we did that, it had a ripple effect. I had calls from all over the country, and the world, looking at LA building that 840 megawatt power plant with the idea it was going to eventually be 100 percent hydrogen, as soon as the units could be refurbished to do it.

I think us putting our flag in the ground galvanized a lot of things for others. There was some talk back east of hydrogen plants and there were projects being developed overseas, too. It also helped galvanize the turbine manufacturers to say that this was the way the world needed to go. We needed to get to 100 percent hydrogen.

We then played off that with our Scattergood project. Scattergood has the cooling units that, by law, have to come offline, so we have to rebuild a whole new power plant. Our NREL study proved that we need local generation at the scale that we have now. We have a fantastic power system that works very well, based on where we have power generation coming into the city currently. That means we have large arteries coming out of Scattergood, Harbor, Haynes and Valley generating plants. Those first few on the coast all need work. You also have Valley Generation which is in an underserved community. 

This is a golden opportunity to say we're going to keep these plants and we're also going to go green, which means we can't burn natural gas. Our solution is to go to hydrogen. 

People are going along with us on this journey, based on our initial momentum. We've done a lot of work on the hydrogen economy, including the ARCHES program, which is pushing for a hydrogen hub for Southern California. The governor is not only strongly behind hydrogen and the hydrogen hub, but he also recently doubled down about needing hydrogen. He said, this is a fuel of the future. This is fuel that'll get us to being green. 

Even if you say we can't afford our green energy goals, take the green part out. The concept of energy independence and us being able to control our destiny and being able to create a clean fuel and have control of that whole supply chain is tremendously important. Nationally, that's now recognized back in DC. I think we were the first ones that were brave enough to say that this is what we're doing. Now, we have a huge upswell of support. 

The key for us is saying, “I don't want to produce hydrogen, I don't want to deliver hydrogen and I don't want to store hydrogen if I can avoid it; I want to use hydrogen and I want to buy it cheap.” For that to happen, we need to support the entire hydrogen economy forming up around us.

In regards to your plans and goals, the market scaling impacts of LADWP's confidence in Hydrogen is certainly confirmed by the participants in VerdeXchange's VX2023 energy, sustainable and clean-tech conference.

I will tell you, we were in a meeting with the DOE and the ARCHES group. We had a whole day of sessions with them briefing on our proposal and answering questions. They said we were probably ahead of them and everybody else on this stuff. At about three that afternoon, the governor popped on the screen to say how important this was for California and the country. 

What we need is the willpower of people to recognize that we've got to get it over the hump. We've got to join forces to make enough of an economy to drive the price down. 

Solar is cheap, but solar used to be expensive. You had to do all sorts of rebates for rooftop solar for anybody to do it. Now, there's no rebates because the prices have come down. It has its own drivers. We need to have that happen with hydrogen. We just need to do it artificially to speed it up, and then we'll be in great shape.

How do California state regulatory policy decisions impact LADWP policies and practices; and vice versa.

Looking at the CPUC or the California Energy Commission, there are stronger ties than what we'd like to admit sometimes but, generally, we're not regulated by the agencies in the traditional sense. However, there are certain things that I think are really important for all of us. There's the whole issue of net metering and getting the correct price signal sent for the use of renewable energy. 

We’ve realized that the world's changed. Energy was really valuable in the middle of the day, and now that energy is almost worthless. Now, it's valuable when the sun goes down and everybody goes home and needs electricity to live their lives. We’re recognizing that we can't live with what we did 20 years ago. We need to catch up with some of those decisions. 

I think there are also things that the state is not currently in alignment with us over. I think we need to look at liability in wildfires. Not that power agencies should be excluded from wildfire liability, but our inverse condemnation laws are kind of backwards right now. Us and Alabama are the only two states that have strict liability, which means if you contributed a little bit, you bought the whole farm. If a raccoon goes up and puts his feet across two wires and falls to the ground on fire, we can be responsible for that. 

I always say, when we have an idea about how policy and practices should move forward, to remember that we are a public agency. Our only goal is to be reliable as well as the lowest cost for our customers, most of whom cannot afford expensive rates. Generally speaking, if we truly believe something's a good idea, it's probably a good idea for most people. One of the most important things is that we have no motivation other than to do the best job for our customers. I always hope that our influence is heard for those things that we think are good changes for the future and things that we think are not such good ideas. It is my hope that state officials really listen to that when they're forming statewide policies.

Pivoting to water, which is where you spent most of your career at DWP, elaborate on the department’s efforts to assure a more resilient, less import dependent water supply for Los Angeles. 

The biggest thing we have to get people to understand is that every drop of water has been around a lot of times. There is no new water… it’s all just part of an endless natural recycling system. Now, we are trying to take that water cycle and short circuit the tail end of it. We're trying to get out of the part where it goes to the ocean and evaporates and hopefully comes back as rain or snow somewhere where we are able to capture and transport it. Instead, since we already have so much water in our possession, how do we maximize use of that water rather than letting it flow to the ocean? 

That involves a few things. One of them is stormwater capture. We have done a lot of it since the 1940s and 50s. We have major stormwater capture facilities built in the Valley, but at the same time, there's a lot of water that's missed in the capture systems that we have historically relied on. If you look at the LA River during Tropical Storm Hilary, it was roaring. If we could grab that water, we would be done for a year. How much of it can we grab that we're not grabbing now?

The ever shrinking LA Times, when reporting on water, asserts we're failing. Your response? 

We're not failing. We actually are now catching about twice the amount of water that we've caught historically. There's a lot more we could catch, but honestly, if we caught every drop of water, we'd then have to figure out how to get it out of the ground and how to treat it and put it into the drinking water system. So there is some happy medium that gets us to the optimal place for capture and local production.

Besides the Measure W projects, we've had other projects that we worked with other agencies on. We've formed a partnership with LA County Public Works to work on our Tujunga Spreading Grounds to double capacity. We're also working on the Pacoima Spreading Grounds together. We've worked with them on getting silt out of their upstream dams and debris basins so they can hold more water. There are a lot of things actively going on which are resulting in real water being captured. 

That said, a lot of water still flows downstream to the ocean. The problem is it takes space to capture water, and I don't see us bulldozing a block or more of the city just to create more spreading grounds. So that means we are stuck with a lot of small projects as a solution, and Measure W addresses a lot of those. They are different kinds of projects than what we've done in the past, but accepting these smaller projects is a critical piece of moving forward: we have so much water that lands here that we currently do not catch, how much more can we capture and make use of?

The other thing is that recycled water has traditionally been water for irrigation. It's not treated to drinking water standards. The whole concept of the joint project with LA County Sanitation and Metropolitan down at the Carson Plant, as well as the project with DWP and LA Sanitation at the Hyperion Plant, is to treat the wastewater to a drinking or near-drinking water standard. Nearly half of our water demand could be recovered and cleaned up to eventually become part of our domestic water supply - again shortcutting the last part of the water cycle and its unpredictability. Then, there's a direct impact on needing to import less water and a whole new level of resiliency that we don't currently have.

It won't be cheap, but we know the technology is there to clean up the water. The challenge is how to deliver it and how to move it. Whether you're building electrical conduit or pipelines, the linear infrastructure is the biggest cost. We're looking at what we need to do to get the water to different parts of town. Could we tie our project and Metropolitan’s together? The only way to make it work is to take a little bit more of a regional approach. Otherwise, you can't spread the costs across a broad base to reduce the unit price.

We also need to look at underutilized pipelines. There may be a number of underutilized pipelines or now out-of-service pipelines that we could take advantage of. Again, every time you're not digging in the soil, you're saving a lot of money. We're going to have to be smart in order to make this plan of local water resilience and sustainability affordable.

With your recent announcement that you will be retiring in early 2024, what career accomplishments deserve greater public attention?

On the power side, championing the topic of hydrogen has been a big thing, as was making sure that our power infrastructure plans were supported. Lastly, it's been a long and difficult effort trying to get ourselves to where we need to be in terms of field staffing. It’s still a work in progress on the power side, but trying to turn the corner on this very challenging issue of workforce availability is something that I feel very good about where we're going.

On the water side, I remember when we decided to take the major open reservoirs out of service in response to changes in water quality regulations. We spent probably a decade and a half working on the solutions. At one point in time, I went around and spoke to each of our water districts about what we were going to do in terms of taking our major reservoirs out of service.  It sounded like heresy, but I understood it could physically and hydraulically be accomplished. We literally redesigned and changed the way water moves around the city. And, we created and completed a plan to bring the city into compliance with the new water quality regulations on time.

I am also thrilled to see the groundwater system being built now in the San Fernando Valley. It’s probably the largest of its kind in the world. I was part of much of the original planning and negotiations, and I'm really happy to see things that I dreamt of actually being built and being put in service. There are so many other things: using shade-balls to resolve a water quality nightmare, operating the water system during the 1994 earthquake… The list of proud moments goes on.

Overall, I've been a big champion of our people and the work they do. I am not afraid to toot our horn that we have some of the lowest power rates in the state, highly competitive water rates, and tremendous reliability. We do a really good job at what we do. One of the parts of this job is being the cheerleader for this team and touting our success. This department has done a tremendous job and we have a lot of challenges ahead, but based on our track record, I feel really good about them.

Lastly, assuming you place a letter for your successor in your desk drawer, what’s it likely to say? 

Someone is going to be here because they've earned it. They will have instincts and knowledge of what needs to be done. I think that you know when something's right. If something doesn't seem right, I think you’ve got to not be afraid to check it out. So, I would say, be yourself and rely on your experience and instincts to guide you. Deep experience is becoming in short supply amongst utility leaders, as it is in so many fields.

The other thing is to be brave. We don't want to be bleeding edge, but you want to be brave enough to lead us well beyond where we are now as an agency.  A lot of people rely on us to lead both in the industry and in the city. That responsibility is something that we can't take lightly. We need to be in a leadership role to help educate and inform people about what needs to be done. We need to be seen as a trusted agency to turn to and get answers from. 

Something that I've been working hard to incorporate into our DNA is the belief that the city owns a water and power agency for a reason, but it’s not just to deliver water and power. It is to be part of the city family and make the city a better place. A lot of our equity initiatives and things we're doing with the communities within LA are really trying to help the city as a whole, besides just flipping the switch and turning the tap on. It will be really important to remember that we're here as a public agency. We make the city a better place, in addition to what we do, and that's a critical thing that we can't forget.

“The concept of energy independence and us being able to control our destiny and being able to create a clean fuel and have control of that whole supply chain is tremendously important… We’re recognizing that we can't live with what we did 20 years ago. We need to catch up with some of those decisions.” - Marty Adams, General Manager & Chief Engineer of LADWP