Water & Energy in SoCal

Fellows embarked on their last Focus Week to learn the ins and outs of the water and energy systems in the Southern Californian region. There were specific lessons to be captured about the infrastructure, distribution, and politics of the resources that drive the region, but also how the systems are connected. As Fellow Matthew Rafeedie remarked, “We as a society are so dependent on running water and power and it is the crux of a modern society – yet we do not debate it as openly as we do other policies and political issues.” Fellow Jenna Karic agreed and learned “Water and energy are way more connected than I imagined. From heating water to providing extra energy from dams, the two are far more related than I thought.” Beyond content-related learnings, the Fellows, for the last time, learned about themselves and how they worked as a cohort. 

While the cohort has engaged in conversation about renewable energy before, the Fellows had rarely discussed how energy works in the region. Because of the state’s clean energy plan, the cohort focused a lot of their learnings on the future. Before that, however, Fellow James Crisafulli noted the historical context of what we were stepping into, acknowledging “our state’s energy system [being] fairly complex as a result of the Enron deliberate rolling blackouts in 2000-2001. That incident scared the California Public Utilities Commission and led to the separation of energy generation (owning power plants) from energy transmission and distribution. No investor-owned utilities now also own power plants to prevent complete monopolization that could lead to abuses of power like we saw with Enron.” 

The cohort simultaneously learned and discussed how the water portfolio is made up – with a breakdown of imported and local water sources. Fellow Jamie Lam noted how “the movement of water to Southern California requires so much energy that the State Water Project is the single largest consumer of energy in the state. This is not offset by the energy the dams produce, and highlights the importance of diversified and local water sources, which can both increase the resilience of the region and better the energy portfolio of the state.” Fellows Philine Qian and Alden Lundy stacked those learnings with knowledge around how “20% of the energy consumed in the state go to the pumping water, while a lot of that energy is for both the State Water Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct is powered by hydroelectric power.” While the focus of the region is mostly around residential water-use, Fellows also learned about agricultural water use from academics, which is inherently connected to the region’s neighboring Central Valley. 

Beyond learning about the politics in energy and water infrastructure, the Fellows had the chance to operationalize the leadership lessons they had experienced through the course of the fellowship. Fellow Aditi Shenoy spoke about how we “integrated having clear organizational structure and still practiced collaborative/ horizontal leadership by having a Project Manager, but gave teams a lot of autonomy.” James Crisafulli agreed, speaking about how the cohort was able to establish a structure quickly to “fall into a rhythm where we were able to drive forward with our deliverable while in the middle of our week, adding in learnings as we went.” With our Project Managers Philine Qian and Alden Lundy at the helm, Fellows were able to minimize the loss of prior work and didn’t start from scratch like many of our other weeks. Former Project Manager, Angel Lira, of Transportation Week agreed – stating “our cohort was able to take the lessons we learned from our previous Focus Weeks where we either had one project manager or no project manager, and found a happy middle ground with two managers. They outlined a clear vision and plan, and even though we took a little longer to finalize the deliverable, our final product was impressive, and was a result of strong leadership.”

Moving forward, the Fellows will continue exploring these topics as they inevitably interact with the fields we go into. Fellow Jamie Lam is “very curious how electric vehicle infrastructure will continue to be built out in CA as automakers and the government alike incentivize the production and purchasing of EVs. In particular, I am waiting with bated breath on how this will hinder/aid the state’s journey to clean energy.” Fellow Alden Lundy plans to do the same, as he will focus on learning more about “investment into renewable energy – the pie chart of what types of energy are going to replace non-renewables is still being debated in the policy sphere.” Meanwhile, hailing from Modesto, CA, Fellow Marissa Mota wants to explore more how farming can be sustainable. Demonstrating Coro’s classic inquiry approach, Marissa asks, “Who and where is farming done equitably without exploiting the land and natural resources?”

In the unique Zoom environment, Fellows still had an opportunity to interview and speak with a breadth of guests. While the Fellows reflected on what was unique about the region’s water and energy systems, they noted how important it would be to continue discussing these topics as they drive society. The Fellows have ironed out many kinks in understanding the capacities of one another and divvying up work for a common goal together after 8 months. There is an understanding and acceptance of the nuances and strengths of each Fellow. As is on par, things did not go perfectly. But perhaps the cohort has never been interested in the pursuit of perfection, but merely of learning, together.