By Sonya Christian, Kern Community College District Chancellor, and Martin Keller, Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Kern County is one of the top oil-producing counties in the nation, but it is also a community that has embraced its renewable resources and now produces 60% of the renewable energy in California, the world’s fifth largest economy.
The discussion related to climate resilience and the energy transition is often framed as old versus new, where oil rigs, refineries and gas-powered electricity plants will soon be replaced by wind farms and solar arrays. But we don’t see it this way. We see the energy sector as unified by a single mission: advancing energy technology and integrating both in a way that provides a smooth and sustainable transition to a decarbonized economy by producing as much reliable, clean, affordable power as possible.
Our organizations, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Kern Community College District, are working together in partnership to ensure energy remains a primary economic driver in Kern County and continues to create good jobs for all residents going forward as it has until now. To us, the way to do that is clear: by harnessing the significant investments coming from the state and federal governments and working with local industry and government to maximize renewable energy generation while making legacy fuels as clean as possible. And doing so in a way that prioritizes the creation of good jobs that can support families and equitable benefits for all residents of this community.
In California, community colleges were created decades ago to be workforce development engines, equipping students with in-demand skills so they can quickly move into the labor market and secure a good job. At Kern CCD, workforce development is not just a core mission but a top priority, and we believe in a new framework for making it happen. It used to be that industry brought new technologies to market and then community colleges would get together with companies to discuss the new job skills and education needed to prepare workers for these jobs. The new framework we work under calls upon community colleges to partner with the researchers as new technology is being developed in order to visualize what kind of agile workforce needs to be created.
We approach this work, as we do everything, with an eye toward equity so that as we embrace the technology that will create the jobs of the future we also make sure the wealth created in the process stays close to home and benefits the people and communities where the work happens. We make this happen through our close community ties, reaching underemployed and underrepresented workers; working with employers to create good jobs and pathways to them; and including communities in discussions about new technologies to prevent adverse health and quality-of-life outcomes in the neighborhoods where industrial facilities are located.
The partnership between NREL and Kern CCD is perfect for this work given NREL’s decades of focused leadership in renewable energy and energy efficiency research, development, and deployment. NREL’s long-standing expertise and breadth of knowledge has positioned it as a leader in the clean energy transition. NREL research is focused on solving market-relevant problems that result in deployable solutions, and their partnerships ensure this work is relevant and applicable to the energy problems that people are trying to solve in their own state, city, or community. By partnering with Kern CCD in Kern County, a place where the energy transition is already happening, NREL can utilize its expertise in a way that ensures solutions are inclusively designed and benefits accrue equitably to communities, creating a national model for how to do this.
Already there are examples in Kern of how energy companies are evolving to meet the urgent demands of climate resiliency. A refinery in Bakersfield that’s been in continuous operation since 1934 will begin producing renewable diesel alongside gasoline. California Resources Corporation (CRC), once a traditional oil and gas producer, has also embraced the energy transition and invested capital to pioneer technology to capture and store carbon emissions at its power generation plant at Elk Hills. Carbon capture and storage has been recognized as critical and necessary by many studies exploring how to reach net zero emissions in the next three decades. Energy companies focused on fossil fuel resources have the know-how and geological engineering expertise to prove and deploy these technologies. And Kern County has the geological formations to store carbon, as well as other energy infrastructure, that make it an ideal place to focus attention, effort, and investment to propel this technology forward for wider use.
Oil and gas production has sustained the local economy in Kern for nearly a century, providing well-paying jobs, even for those just out of high school. The industry is a significant contributor to the local tax base, funding government services like public safety and libraries, money that some fear could vanish with the phaseout of fossil fuels. Our challenge is to ensure that doesn’t happen, and we believe that together we can decarbonize the energy sector in Kern while developing and deploying renewable energy technologies for the future that create good jobs and a flourishing regional economy.
The task ahead of us is a huge one. Our two organizations are committed to working together to bring cutting-edge technology and the nation’s premier scientific expertise to the educational institutions in Kern that are preparing the future workforce. But we alone cannot make the future a success on our own. We know it is imperative that our work also involves and overlaps with the work being done by partners in government, education, community organizations, and labor to make it happen.
But let’s be clear: There is no old and new. There is only us, and together we will create the energy future.