Nancy Sutley: Getting LADWP 100 Percent Carbon-Free by 2035


With February’s opening of the Red Cloud Wind Farm Project in New Mexico, over 60 percent of LA’s power is now coming from renewable sources. VX News had the opportunity to speak with the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Nancy Sutley, on how LADWP is going to reach its ambitious goal of 100 percent clean energy in just over ten years. Sutley also addresses potential LADWP collaboration with the state, transportation agencies, the federal government, and the private sector to assist  LA’s energy producers tackle climate change through the use of green hydrogen and other technologies.

Nancy, VX News is excited to catch up and learn how LADWP, the nation’s largest public utility, is presently planning to achieve its 100 percent clean energy goals by 2035.

Nancy Sutley: A year ago in March 20201, we completed the LA100 study, which was a groundbreaking analysis of what investments are necessary to get LADWP to 100 percent clean energy. The study did a lot of in depth analysis and modeling of the system. Across the scenarios, there were a number of things in common. One was that 100 percent clean energy by 2045 is feasible. One of the scenarios that was evaluated was that we can get to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. The mayor and the City Council said they liked that one, so that’s what we’re working towards.

            In terms of planning, I'd put it into three buckets. One is actually getting to the implementation plan—that's the strategic, long-term resource plan process that's underway. I believe that will be concluded sometime this fall. It will really get down to identifying exactly what's necessary  to get to our goals

            The second is an equity strategies study with NREL, UCLA, and a number of others to answer the question of how do we ensure that all Angelenos can benefit from the kinds of investments that we are we will be making to get to 100 percent.

            The third is a whole bunch of other studies, analyses, and planning around what our infrastructure need is and what transmission projects we need. Those are all going on simultaneously.

            In the meantime, we're continuing to move forward on the actual projects to move us closer to our 100 percent goals. That includes things like the Mayor and other folks in New Mexico celebrating the commencing of commercial operations of the Red Cloud Wind Project, bringing wind power from New Mexico into LA, which will add 6 percent to our renewable portfolio standard.

            We continue to be actively procuring renewable energy projects  to meet our goals, as well as other activities around continuing to put out electric vehicle (EV) charger rebates. We provide a subsidy for people who want to install EV chargers both in their home or for our commercial customers. Those  rebate offerings continue to be oversubscribed, reflecting significant activity in building out the EV charger infrastructure around Los Angeles.

Elaborate on the significance of LADWP’s’ historic agreement with Mitsubishi on the use green hydrogen to replace reliance on fossil fuels to meet it’s long term energy reliability mandate .

One of the things the LA100 study said was that no matter which path you go down, you need what's called ‘firm dispatchable capacity.’ In case we hit a really hot stretch or we have a fire that restricts the amount of renewable energy we can import from outside of the basin, we need to be able to fill in that gap.

            Currently and in the past, what we would have done was build a power plant or use one of our existing natural gas fired power plants. To provide the same function without carbon emissions, we need something like green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is hydrogen that's made using renewable energy. There are a number of methods to make it, but one is electrolysis. There, you use renewable electricity to break up a water molecule, and the hydrogen can be used in a power turbine, much like natural gas is used.

            We're looking at two potential applications. The first is we are shutting down LADWP’s last coal-fired power plant in Utah in 2025. The original plan was to replace it with a smaller, but still sizable natural gas-fired power plant. The project that's being worked on right now, at the day that it commences operation, it will be capable of using up to about a third hydrogen, with the idea that when there's a replacement of the turbines down the road, it'll go to using 100 percent hydrogen. There's some things about the site in Utah that make it a place where you can actually create the hydrogen on-site through electrolysis. We're also looking similarly at the possibility of doing something similar within the LA Basin at one or more of the in-basin of natural gas power plants.

Los Angeles (the metropolis) has applied to the US Commerce Department for a blue-green grant of infrastructure funding to meet the needs of underserved communities that would center at the Port of LA and AltaSea. Address the value of having a green hydrogen Hub in Los Angeles.

Even before the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Department of Commerce created this Build Back Better Infrastructure Grant through the Economic Development Administration, and there is an application from Los Angeles that a number of us worked on, centered at the port.

            We're in the next phase now that we’ve got the planning part done. The same group is working on the full application.

Interestingly, that may be dwarfed by what's coming out of the Department of Energy in the next month as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. There was a section creating funding for hydrogen hubs. The legislation funded at $8 billion around moving the hydrogen market in the United States.

            We think that Los Angeles has the potential to be a great place to grow a carbon free green hydrogen hub to meet both LADWP’s needs and parts of the transportation sector. How can we get the carbon and smog forming pollutants out of transportation? You electrify everything you can, and then you can use green hydrogen on the rest of some of those applications.

             There was a motion introduced in the council that told LADWP and the Port of LA to go work with partners to figure out how to participate in this program. We are busily at work to figure out what it will take to be in the best position possible to have some of that funding come to LA.

                  I think California and LA in particular are well-positioned because we have a huge need and use for carbon-free energy to meet our needs and finally solve the environmental justice and air pollution problems that plague our city.

Related to the above, address the status of  LA's Electric Vehicle Master Plan and its relationship to accelerating fleet electrification as a means of reducing smog-forming emissions.

We still live in the smoggiest city in the US. About 80 percent of the smog-forming emissions come from transportation. These are not easily-regulated sources of pollution.

            Electrification is one of the ways that we will finally solve this problem as the grid gets cleaner and cleaner. For the city, it's both the need to clean up our own fleets and to be a leader.

            LA has been involved in this for decades now. We had some of the original EV chargers in the city from 20 plus years ago. Over time, the city has incorporated more and more zero emission or low emission vehicles into the fleet, including DWP’s own fleet.

            We've been working with South Coast AQMD for many years because of their rules for public fleets. They would rather we didn't buy any more diesel vehicles, so we work with them every year about a lot of the specialized vehicles.

            The second place where DWP plays a role is working with city departments to ensure that there's enough charging infrastructure to support the city’s plans.

As LADWP’s CSO, what do you expect from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and from the State to assist LADWP to meet its climate goals?

I’ve spent some time in DC. In 2009, the American Rescue and Recovery Act had about $90 billion for clean energy programs. At that time, that was the biggest investment anybody could even imagine. The infrastructure law does that better by many factors. It's funding for grid infrastructure from the Department of Energy and funding some of these emerging technologies.

            We're very excited about that and are following things very closely. They've done some really interesting things. For example, they announced that they would be creating a joint office between the US Department of Transportation and Department of Energy around electric vehicles. That was a very encouraging sign out of DC.

            We're still waiting for our first check to come in the mail. We still have to apply for a number of these funding opportunities, but we're really excited.

            Also, California is enjoying record budget surpluses. I think the Newsom administration and the legislature have really put clean energy and funding climate programs on the top of their priorities for spending that surplus.

Regulation & electrification of light and heavy duty trucks is currently a California policy priority; will LADWP able to serve future demand for power?

It's both a huge opportunity and a huge need. In Los Angeles, we both benefit and bear the burden of goods movement through the ports out into the rest of the US. It's a huge driver of our local economy, but we also get all the traffic and air pollution that goes with it.

            Passenger cars today produce around 99 percent less smog-forming emissions than they did in 1970. You can't say the same for trucks. There are tens of thousands of drayage trucks running around LA, helping move cargo and getting it out.

            The regulators are trying to figure out what their piece of this is, but a lot of it is around both what's available in the market and having the infrastructure. We've seen the entrance of both new and established companies going into the zero emission truck business. We want to make sure that we're ready to support, through the infrastructure, those trucks when they arrive.

            One application we know for sure is both Metro and LADOT are moving to have their bus fleets be 100 percent electric. We want to make sure that we're ready to serve future demand. We are working closely with both of those agencies, as well as with the ports, to meet the demand for power to support those needs.

In past years addressing the water-energy nexus was priority issue; is it still?

            The way that the water-energy nexus manifests itself in California is in two critical ways. One is we're in a historic drought. The first three months of 2022 have been the driest on record. Hydropower for California has been sort of the swing power resource. When there's plenty of water, we get plenty of hydropower. When there isn't plenty of water, we get very little, and we have to find other ways to produce electricity. When we don't have the hydro available, we do end up using our fossil power plants more.

            The second is about the embedded energy in water. The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a net energy producer because at the time the aqueduct was built, they also built hydro plants to help build the aqueduct and to take advantage of the water flowing down to Los Angeles. As our system has grown, it's a smaller and smaller share, but it is nevertheless a nice feature of the of the aqueduct.

            An awful lot of energy in California is used to move, treat, distribute, and use water.  . I think being aware of the embedded energy and the embedded carbon of our water is important for our water agencies.

What’s LADWP’s current view of the potential of offshore wind to power the grid?

We are very eager to see what happens in development of offshore wind resources off the coast of California. We'll be looking for a number of different issues like how you get the power onshore and where you get it onshore.

            LADWP is a big owner of transmission in California, but we're also not part of the California ISO. How that power would get to Los Angeles is a real question, whether we have to go through the CAISO system or we could access it directly.

            Then the second thing, frankly, is what it’s going to cost? Because we do own so much transmission, we can access renewables from other places. For example, I talked about the Red Cloud wind project in New Mexico— we're able to get that to LA and it's a pretty cost effective. By the time some of these offshore projects are ready to go, what they end up costing and whether they can compete with terrestrial wind projects, as well as other renewables, will be key.

Most utilities in the west, having experienced devastating natural disasters (wildfires),  are performing vulnerability assessments of their assets. Is LADWP likewise doing such assessments and what has been learned?

This is obviously a big concern from a public safety perspective, as well as the resiliency and reliability of the grid. In 2018, there was a big fire near Sylmar where we, to preserve the lines so they didn't burn to a crisp, we had to shut down three of the four big transmission lines that bring power into the basin. In addition to wanting to protect our communities, we also want to be sure that we are prepared.

            In response to a lot of what's happened, there are new requirements on utilities to make sure our equipment doesn't contribute to fires. As our utility colleagues across California have done, we have been investing a lot of time and effort in both figuring out what we need to do and actually doing it to harden our system and reduce the risk of fires. We, as all utilities do, have to do a wildfire management plan.

            In the city of LA, we have areas that are at high risk for wildfire which get a lot of attention, not just from us, but from the fire department. We also work closely with the fire department, and that's one of the benefits of being in an urban area where we have fantastic fire department.

LA and California voters are concerned with climate change and overwhelming favor reliance on renewables yet our utilities haven't transitioned  to cleaner power as fast as some constituents want. What would accelerate such a transition?

I don't know that we’ve solved it, but I think, as we are looking at what a future DWP looks like, we really tried to expand the tent a lot in terms of involvement by the community. The days where you could sit in a building and make decisions are over. What we've been trying to do is really ensure that our plans are community-driven.

            We had a very big stakeholder advisory group for LA100. We have similar kinds of groups for the follow up on planning. When it comes down to it, we have a pretty good barometer on the public support for our plans moving forward. So far, there's been pretty good support for trying to be a leader on getting to a zero carbon grid.

Lastly, what’s  LA DWP’s  current position re the utility &  future of nuclear power?

We get a very small share of a nuclear power plant in Arizona, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which is licensed until 2047. We will get that carbon free energy for as long as that plant operates.

            In addition to the public concern about nuclear power, there are other reasons we don't see a lot of nuclear development. It's really expensive, and you have to build it in such big increments that there probably aren't that many places where it’s possible.

            I've heard for probably a decade now that these small, modular reactors are coming. There's a lot of research. We'll just have to see whether they can overcome the public's queasiness about nuclear power and what it means from a waste disposal perspective because we still, as a country, haven’t solved that issue.

            The last thing is, can it compete with cheap renewables? The prices go up and down a little bit, but everything is trending to cheaper and cheaper renewables. If there's a price premium there, it has to be worth it. Even with the small modular reactors, what is it that's worth paying that kind of premium for? We don't know what it is yet.

“We think that Los Angeles has the potential to be a great place to grow a carbon free green hydrogen hub to meet both LADWP’s needs and parts of the transportation sector.” -Nancy Sutley, LADWP