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Kern County's renewable energy employment potential comes into view

Kern's prospects for expanding employment in renewable energy came into clearer focus Wednesday during an online discussion featuring a federal official's perspective on emerging clean-power technologies alongside the somewhat diverging views of the county's top planner.

In an early look at a new partnership involving Bakersfield College and the U.S. Department of Energy, an executive director within the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said Kern makes an obvious destination for investment in clean energy storage and installation simply because of the large amount of solar and wind power generated in eastern Kern.

David Mooney, head of the lab's institutional planning, integration and development, suggested the county may have additional opportunities in materials design, manufacturing automation, cyber security and an emerging crossover technology called agri-voltaic, in which solar panels are mounted above certain crops that can benefit from partial cover.

He sounded particularly hopeful about "electrons to molecules," referring to an experimental form of clean energy storage that invests electrical power into converting methane and other small molecules into precursor fuels.

Given Kern's wealth of renewable energy generation, he said, "Kern County could be very central to a realization of a lot of promise of these initiatives."

But Lorelei Oviatt, the county's community development director and a leader in California energy permitting, focused more on technologies closely aligned with Kern's strengths in conventional forms of energy, such as biodiesel production and underground injection operations.

She predicted Kern will within 10 years become a center of excellence in the field of carbon management, which involves removing greenhouse gas from the air and injecting it deep into the county's vast oil reservoirs. At least one such project is in planning stages locally.

Oviatt noted the county is already home to the state's largest producer of biodiesel and will soon see part of a Bakersfield refinery turned into a renewable diesel production plant.

"This is our future. Alternative fuels," she said. Another opportunity for the local economy, she added, is in recruiting outside businesses that need access to clean energy. 

While the county has often heard from innovators out of Silicon Valley wanting to invest in renewable energy locally, Oviatt said they haven't yet been successful scaling up. With this new local-federal partnership serving as a kind of filter, she said, hopefully the county will be ready when business applications mature.

Regarding the new partnership, Mooney said a goal of the national laboratory has been to connect with more community colleges as part of a process intended to ensure various players are doing relevant research required to get promising technologies into the marketplace.

Tom Burke, chancellor of the three-college district, said the initiative should help leverage oil and gas assets, clean-energy resources and existing local investments in geothermal power generation, bioenergy and commercial-scale solar and wind farms.

For its part, the district will provide the necessary workforce development, he said.

The president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corp., Richard Chapman, said the county is fortunate to have business, government and education at the table. He predicted the new partnership will help the county outpace other regions competing to lead the way on renewable energy.

BC President Sonya Christian, highlighting the potential for creating clean-energy job opportunities into the future, noted the college already works with local oil producers to connect talented locals with research that has kept the county as an energy leader.

She promoted two social-media hashtags designed to focus the conversation online: #KernLeads and #EnergyAtKern.