July 12, 2024
Why Gene Rodrigues Came out of Retirement to Lead DOE’s Office of Electricity
Assistant Secretary Aims to Get New Grid, Power Tech Adopted at Speed and Scale
DOE Assistant Secretary Gene Rodrigues
DOE Assistant Secretary Gene Rodrigues | © RTO Insider LLC

WASHINGTON ― After 23 years working on demand-side programs at Southern California Edison and another eight as a consultant at ICF International, Gene Rodrigues was four months into retirement in 2022 when he got “the call,” to serve as assistant secretary at the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity. 

“There were two things that made this irresistible to me,” Rodrigues said in a recent interview at DOE headquarters. “I saw this as my opportunity to give back … my opportunity to actually serve all the American people.” 

Rodrigues felt a more personal pull as well. “I’m the son of a father who was a career military person and a mother who came from her native land and became a U.S. citizen,” he said. “So, it was engrained in me since I was a kid growing up around parents with that kind of background that serving the public is not just something you do; it’s an obligation that we all have, and this was my opportunity to kind of honor my parents in the same way.” 

Known for his deep industry knowledge and engaging personality, Rodrigues aced his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was sworn in as DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability on Jan. 9, 2023. In practical terms, his main job is leading the Office of Electricity (OE), which works with DOE’s 17 National Laboratories “on solving really big problems, making discoveries and breakthroughs around everything from battery chemistry to materials science … that will help us to advance the grid; to make a truly 21st-century grid,” he said. (See Former NRG CEO Faces Tough Questions at Senate ENR Hearing.) 

Rodrigues sees the OE as part of a continuum running from the labs to DOE’s Grid Deployment Office (GDO), which has been awarding billions in funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help utilities upgrade their distribution and transmission systems. OE does the science ― and gets fewer headlines ― and GDO does the infrastructure, he said. 

“We take basic science discoveries and prove them out through research and demonstration activities that help the market to get confidence in these new technologies [and] new operational approaches,” Rodrigues said. The OE focuses on advances in “components and systems, in controls and communications and in grid-scale storage, making them not just accessible but trusted by the folks who are making massive investments, and that helps to accelerate their adoption in the real world.” 

In May, for example, the OE awarded $15 million in grant money to three projects demonstrating different long-duration storage technologies, including vanadium redox flow batteries and supercapacitors, both of which can provide 10 hours or more of storage. 

Rodrigues sat down with RTO Insider for a wide-ranging conversation on the work that OE is doing and why he spends a lot of his time, not in his D.C. office, but in the field, working with utility representatives, regulators and customers, all looking for new solutions to the core problems of the energy transition. The quotes from the interview here have been edited and condensed. 

RTO Insider: We know DOE is looking at the role of artificial intelligence in advancing and accelerating the energy transition. What role does the OE have in that? How can it use AI to bridge some of the gaps in technology and policies? 

Rodrigues: “We aren’t the shop that specifically works on it, but within science and innovation, we have folks who are 100% focused on what are the potentials of using AI that can help us leapfrog to make the grid even more reliable, resilient and secure. When you look at the grid, you see this incredibly complex network of poles and wires connected to generators, both large central station in faraway places and the solar panels on the roof of my house, connected to a whole bunch of devices in the home. So, it’s absolutely clear to me as the assistant secretary for the Office of Electricity that we can’t train people to be able to operate a system that complex at the speed of the flow of electrons through wires. But guess what? We can use distributed intelligence to help people make one wise and virtuous choice to participate in a program that helps them financially, helps them with reliability and resilience, but also helps manage this increasingly complex grid. That’s the incredible promise of artificial intelligence.” 

We can’t talk about AI without talking about data centers, the increasing amounts of electricity they will need and how some utilities are reacting, saying they need to build more natural gas plants. What’s the way forward here? 

“Utilities and the folks who are building these data centers, what they have to do is start working in a way that’s more collaborative than in the past because that collaboration allows two things to happen. No. 1, it allows the utilities to plan thoughtfully about where and how to best serve that load using their existing system and whatever expansions are required, [and] how that process can be expedited. The second thing is some of these large data centers are looking at how they can be a constructive participant in the load by using load flexibility. Sometimes these data centers are [built] by firms that have data centers in different parts of the country, and they can move some of that computing load from one place to another to help balance out the energy. And so those are very, very interesting opportunities.” 

One thing we’ve been hearing a lot about at industry conferences is the need for new approaches to cost and risk allocation. Do you see any opportunities there? 

“I think there’s some genius in rethinking cost allocation and risk sharing in our industry, and let me suggest one thing here as an example. In today’s world, we have the potential to make suboptimal decisions around transmission planning and investment if we allow ourselves to be boxed into thinking that an individual utility should only look at the costs incurred in its service territory and try to offset them only with the benefits that are accrued in that service territory. 

“As we have more interconnections for broader geographies, it allows you to do two things on a reliability and resilience foundation. It allows you to import energy when needed to make up for [when] a storm goes through and you lose some generating capacity locally. But on the other side, it allows you to export energy to a wider area of our nation in ways that might create economic opportunity for the people within a state. So, as we think about how to justify cost and transmission investments, we need to be thinking not just in terms of the artificial boundaries of a service territory in the region, but how interconnections outside of a service territory and even between regions can be truly cost-effective investments in ensuring not just reliability, but resilience.” 

Covering utilities and conferences, we always hear about pilots and demonstrations but not necessarily how a utility is expanding a pilot across its systems. How does the industry break out of this perennial cycle of pilots and risk-averse utilities and regulators? How are you doing that at OE? 

“There’s an old joke in our industry, that every utility wants to be the first to be second. And that makes sense when you think about the awesome responsibility of ensuring reliability. It’s awfully hard to move away from what’s been proven in the past over and over and over again. But I would say this: I think progressive utility leadership and progressive regulators and policymakers are understanding the issue that the energy field is changing in such a way that just relying on the techniques and the tools and the products and the approaches of the past is not the safe approach. 

“That is why it’s so important for me in this bridge role between basic science of discovery and deployment, to not sit here in the office and just write white papers about how keen and wonderful technologies are but actually to go out and work with utilities and utility associations in partnership to overcome whatever hurdles they have. Some of it is certainty about economics. We have a tool coming out of our office ― Reconductoring Economic and Financial Analysis (REFA) ― and the idea is that because reconductoring is not something that’s been done time and time again throughout the industry, we’ve created a tool to help decision-makers in the utility and in the regulatory bodies to assess the economic benefit of reconfiguring an existing transmission thoroughfare with high quality, highly efficient, advanced technology. 

“Our folks here in the Office of Electricity ― it’s kind of a fun thing we do ― I always talk to them about impact [slams hand on table], and I always slam the table when I talk about impact because that is really what our job is. It’s not just to do research, development and demonstration, but it’s to ensure it gets adopted in an accelerated fashion and at scale in the real world.” 

Do you have any success stories you can share? 

“When the supply chain issues started being raised by industry and brought to the table here in the Department of Energy, the tip of the spear was distribution transformers. We brought together a convening of manufacturers, the folks who produce electrical steel, the folks from utility associations, all of them came to the table, and we discovered some things. One was there was simply way too much diversity in the design specifications for these transformers, and that slowed down the ability of manufacturers to build [them]. And we discovered that there was too little flexibility in the specification of individual components; so, if you said, ‘I want [a certain] component,’ and that wasn’t available, then it stopped your ability to complete a product instead of using something else. 

“So, we added representatives from EEI, APPA, the public power folks and rural electric co-ops ― got their engineers around the table with the manufacturers, and we facilitated discussions around how could we put together a matrix of components substitution, so that we would get out of this problem of running into a bottleneck when one component wasn’t available. And the other thing they are doing, and they’re continuing to work on as we speak, is how can we maybe bring a little more rationality to the diversity in distribution transformer design?” 

One of the ongoing challenges of the energy transition is just getting public buy-in on the need for more transmission. Everyone wants clean, reliable, affordable power; they want more of it, and they want it faster, but no one wants wires anywhere near where they can see them. How can the OE address that? 

“The answer to that is fairly clear. You can’t look at transmission and sell it on its technological features, even though the folks who have engineering degrees in our department love to talk about how high-tech the components and systems are that we work on. I think we really have to get to a conversation in this country that gets people to lose their sense of complacency about the engineering marvel that it is that when you push a switch, the lights come on. We’ve had over a century of that kind of reliability, and we’ve just taken for granted all this engineering, economic magic that just happens in the background. You don’t need to think about it.  

“It is time for policymakers, for regulators for legislators, for people planning and operating and investing in the grid to think about it. So, will transmission ever be sexy? I don’t think so. But it should be more in front of mind because we have options available to us today that will help us to ensure reliability, resilience, security and affordability into the future. And if we don’t think about, consider and adopt and even embrace those new technologies and new approaches, then we’ll be mired in the approaches of the past. And that’s not how to lead the world in a giant, clean energy revolution that is being undertaken as we speak.” 

Department of EnergyEnergy StorageTransmission Planning