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Evolving our energy systems to create climate resilience and equitable benefits

Martin Keller & Sonya Christian

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.

Good Jobs Demand Education

Welcome to the Jobs Demand Education blog, a place to share new approaches to workforce and economic development, with a goal of supporting economic mobility for our community while staying committed to the health of our people and the health of our environment.

Happy Labor Day 2022
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Trustee Nan Gomez-Heitzeberg, Trustee and President of the Board Romeo Agbalog, Trustee Kay Meek, Trustee Yovani Jimenez
at the public event announcing Sonya Christian as the sixth chancellor of Kern CCD.

I started as Chancellor of Kern CCD July 1, 2021, and immediately engaged with colleagues and community partners in advancing workforce and economic development with equity at the center.  

We realized that the nature of the 21st Century workforce is shifting in a tremendous way. Our three colleges at Kern CCD (Bakersfield College, Porterville College, and Cerro Coso Community College) wanted to make sure that we partnered with high-end research organizations that are developing new technologies to help the country mitigate climate issues.  We believe that our colleges can bring critical local information on economic, environmental, and health impacts on our communities to inform the research agenda of these organizations. Furthermore, by having community colleges be a part of the development and implementation of emerging technologies, we are in a better place to design the curriculum required to educate the future workforce. 

One of the key industry sectors facing unprecedented change is energy, where Kern County is recognized as a leader, and sees itself continuing in a leading role as our country prioritizes investments in decarbonization, clean technology, renewable energy and climate resilience.

Kern CCD Energy Team

On May 31st, the Hechinger Report published a commentary that I wrote on green jobs.  Here is an excerpt:

Kern County, in California’s Central Valley, is creating a prosperous future with environmentally supportive practices; and the Kern Community College District (Kern CCD) has become a perfect partner for businesses, industries and county government in creating an abundance of green jobs that are also good jobs, an important step toward establishing a strong, local economy.

A few years ago, Kern CCD began developing an “educational ecosystem” to support the creation of a new green energy economy. It included topics like carbon capture and sequestration, microgrids and the building of a clean transportation infrastructure.

This energy educational ecosystem requires that we stay connected to emerging research on clean technology and decarbonization and develop a flexible curriculum to keep up with that research and resultant new technologies. It also requires that our colleges connect with underemployed and underrepresented workers; work with employers to create good jobs and pathways to them; and educate communities on the impacts of new technologies.

To read the full article: https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-why-community-colleges-are-the-perfect-partner-for-green-jobs-and-good-jobs/

For me, as a child growing up in India, the image of California presented in popular culture was of the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood movies, and the beach. I didn’t know about the Central Valley — what noted author Gerald Haslam refers to as “the other California”.

But now that I’ve been a resident of Kern, that “other” California for more than twenty years, I’ve come to appreciate the Central Valley’s diverse population and powerhouse economy. As we collectively envision what our future could look like (#CreatOurFuture), the Central Valley also is the economic incubator where we have the generational prowess and leadership necessary to bring emerging technologies around energy, agriculture and water into practical applications. #DaringMightyThings.

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Earlier this August, a delegation from Kern CCD visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. NREL has been an important research partner for Kern CCD as we look to develop curriculum, training and community education around emerging new energy careers. With the help of a $50 million investment from the state legislature and additional support from our community partners, Kern CCD is establishing a California Renewable Energy Laboratory (CREL) with centers of excellence, locally-driven research, and community education around innovative renewable energy technologies. With CREL in its early stages of development, our team was excited to tour the NREL facilities and learn more about all of their projects.

James McGarrah, Tunde Deru, Liz Rozell, Sara Sullivan, Devin, Daugherty, Sonya Christian, Dave Teasedale, Nicole Parra, Anthony Cordova

During our trip, I learned that one of NREL’s critical objectives is in integrated energy pathways, which involves leveraging innovations in microgrids, clean transportation and other renewables to work in concert with our existing energy infrastructure. To truly create a power sector free of carbon emissions, all of these innovations in renewable energy can’t be siloed. Integrated energy pathways are strategies to modernize the electric grid by taking advantage of new energy storage technologies, connecting the grid to clean transportation infrastructure, and improving grid resilience.


NREL’s philosophy of integrated energy pathways aligns perfectly with Kern CCD’s approach to energy workforce development with equity. We’ve established intentional partnerships with trusted messengers and key stakeholders in the energy space to ensure all of the county’s resources are being brought to bear as we think through our clean energy transition.

One example of clean energy pathways we’re working toward is in biofuels, which involves utilizing the county’s vast supply of agricultural waste to extract clean biohydrogen. To create an integrated pathway in our biofuel work, Kern CCD is bringing researchers together with ag industry professionals to develop biofuel curriculum. When that curriculum is in place, we can use our existing partnerships with community-based organizations working alongside disinvested communities as a conduit for building the future biofuels workforce.

Let me pause for a moment and invite Dave Teasdale to talk more about the work he’s doing with the Energy Innovation Workforce Coalition. He’ll describe how our partnerships in energy work together to facilitate integrated energy pathways.

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Dave’s Corner


As an educator who has led workforce development and training in support of the energy, construction, and utility sectors since 2010 and as founding Director of the 21st Century Energy Center, I am heartened by the unprecedented pace of clean energy innovation in Kern County and the Southern San Joaquin Valley. 

The work of our Energy Innovation Workforce Coalition lays the foundation for realizing the goal of integrated energy pathways through grid modernization and clean transportation growth. Through strong partnerships, community and industry involvement, and trailblazing workforce development programs, we are seeing Kern County transform into an epicenter of clean energy innovation.

By pulling together clean energy experts and innovators, government and industry leaders, and community organizations, the committee works to ensure that the maximum benefit from the emerging clean energy economy accrues to Kern County, and that we are positioned with the knowledge and workforce necessary to realize those benefits.

Our industry and technology partners include:
A-C Electric, Cal Microgrids, Paired Power, Golden Empire Transit, Siemens, Kern County Chapter National Electrical Contractors Association, and the Greater Bakersfield New Car Dealers Association. 

Community Based Organizations include:
The Community Action Partnership of Kern, Project Clean Air, and the San Joaquin Electric Vehicle Partnership

From Government, the coalition includes:
The Kern Council of Governments, the County of Kern, and the Cities of Bakersfield, Arvin, Shafter, and Wasco.

To support the concrete steps of renewable energy integration, the Energy Innovation Workforce Coalition is broken into subcommittees focused on Microgrids (grid modernization and resilience) and Clean Transportation. Both are highly participative venues where employers share workforce trends, community leaders highlight the needs of the community, and new ideas and projects pertinent to integrated energy pathways and workforce development are envisaged. Together, this diverse coalition of partners is helping Kern County and the South San Joaquin Valley prepare the workforce of the future and realize the benefits that flow from our pivotal role in building the clean energy economy.

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The future of higher education and workforce starts with you, so please share your thoughts as we work together to make our communities stronger, cleaner, and healthier places to live.

Remember  Good Jobs Demand Education.  

Until next time,

-Sonya
#CreatingOurFuture
Always #DaringMightyThings