Marty Adams is an exception. He started his career at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power out of college and has moved up through the ranks since, forging a career related to almost every facet of L.A.’s water, including planning, design and dayto- day operation and maintenance of the water supply system. He previously oversaw the LADWP water operations division, served as senior assistant general manager over the water system and most recently, LADWP’s chief operating officer.
He now leads LADWP, the nation’s largest publicly owned utility as general manager and chief engineer.
A civil engineer by training, Adams is a Glendale native and graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Outside of work, he serves as board chairman of the San Fernando Community Health Center, as well as on a number of boards related to the water and power industries.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT LEADING AN ORGANIZATION YOU HAVE BEEN WITH FOR MANY YEARS? YOU KNOW A LOT OF PEOPLE AT LADWP GIVEN YOUR LONGEVITY. WHAT’S THAT LIKE?
I’m working on my 37th year at LADWP. It really is the people that make this job special. It’s enjoyable being somewhere I have spent most of my adult life since college, and to have a chance to use what I have learned over the years, not only through relationships with people, but also in terms of LADWP’s history, and how we have evolved and what we’re doing now. A lot of that history really helps in terms of looking at our direction for the future and having an instinct for what does and doesn’t work. Every organization has its own culture, and understanding how things work here, being an insider, is a huge advantage in understanding how people think and feel.
WHEN YOU STARTED AT LADWP, CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT THE ORGANIZATION WAS LIKE AND WHAT KIND OF CHANGES YOU’VE SEEN IN YOUR CAREER?
The organization has definitely evolved.
It has really changed in how we communicate and work together, and how people know each other so much better throughout the organization because there’s more mixing and moving around of jobs. We’ve grown in that way. It’s funny. When I was a fairly young engineer, I actually got to know the general manager at the time because I was working on a project he had been involved with earlier in his career, and I was scared to death to walk into his office. He was the nicest guy, and the whole time I was just nervous.
I try to remember now when someone comes to see me that they may feel the same thing. I keep thinking to myself, “What’s so special about coming in to see me?” But I have to remember what it was like back then when I was in their shoes.
At some point, I thought, “Gosh, I wonder what it’d be like to run this organization, never knowing in a civil service system whether that would ever be a possibility. You always think, “One more level. Maybe I’ll make it to one more level and see how it goes.” Every time is kind of a pleasant surprise and a new set of opportunities. I’m really happy to be where I am now.
I feel very honored, especially to be leading the organization I’ve been a part of my whole career.
THIS HAS BEEN A UNIQUE YEAR, TO SAY THE LEAST. WITH AROUND 10,000 LADWP EMPLOYEES UNDER YOUR RESPONSIBILITY, WHAT HAS KEPT YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT?
The biggest thing that’s been concerning me all this time during COVID is trying to balance the risks to our employees and their health and welfare with our ability to do our job and provide our customers with what they need. I think we’re in a unique position: We’re the one department that sends everybody in the city a bill every month. When people are hurting and challenged economically, we have to deliver what customers need and at the same time make sure they see value in us.
Now, take that public expectation and overlay it with the risks of being at work and doing our work. Whether it’s the field crews keeping them functioning and safely separated, or our workers in the office—it has been a struggle how to balance that. Not only are we essential workers, but we’re also asking the public to continue to fund us, through water and power rates, in a time when their resources are very limited. That’s the one thing that has kept me on my toes all the time these last several months.
LOOKING AT THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER, WHAT KIND OF LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT MANAGING AND LEADING PEOPLE? WHAT IS YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
I learned a long time ago that a lot of things that happen in meetings actually happen after the meeting itself. You will sit in a meeting, and then afterward everybody in the hallway is talking about what should have been said or done, and what we should really do.
I have always tried to really encourage people to speak what’s on their mind, even if it’s contrary to what somebody else is saying. Sometimes, people don’t want to rock the boat, which is ultimately important when you have chosen a path to follow. But at the same time, you need some creative tension to make sure you have the right answers and to make sure you’re really looking at all the angles. I’ve had a habit—much to some of my group’s dismay over the years—of challenging people or throwing out crazy ideas just to have people push back.
When I think about my style, mostly I try to be motivational. I like people; I like projects. To me, life’s about making lemonade. I don’t ever see anything really bad happen. I just see different versions of opportunities, so I like to find creative solutions.
Also, I would rather try to keep up with my people who are running so fast they’re outpacing me, than have to push everyone. I like to challenge my staff to really push their limits and see how creative they can be.
LADWP IS ANALYZING MOVING TOWARD A 100% CARBON-FREE ELECTRIC GRID, IN A PROJECT CALLED LA100. TELL US ABOUT IT AND WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED SO FAR.
It’s not just renewable energy—it’s how you move that energy around, and a lot of it comes down to how you store that energy. It reminds me of real estate. It’s location, location, location. So much of what we would need to operate at scale lies outside the L.A. Basin. How do we get power into the city, how do we make sure it can get everywhere, and what’s the possibility of actually pulling that off? In this business, transmission is a big challenge, especially new transmission line rights-of-way within the city of L.A. that would move power around differently than how we’ve done it historically.
We’ve learned a lot in the last couple years of intensive studies about what we need to be carbon-free and the long list of projects and activities required to be able to get there and keep the lights on. Right now, LADWP is on track to be 80% renewable by 2036—and 97% carbon-free—which is outstanding. The challenge becomes as you get to the last few percentage points, your costs go up.
They become tougher projects and more expensive projects.
I think one of the biggest things that has been drilled into our collective experience is that time of day is everything when it comes to renewable energy, and storage has become key for us. We have one of the biggest batteries in the country in our Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant, where we pump water up using excess renewable energy during the day, then generate power in the evening using that renewable hydropower.
Hydrogen, I think, is going to be something that will likely be a gamechanger for us in the future. It is pretty clear we need a good amount of dispatchable power to maintain reliability and meet future electrification goals. We need something that moves like a turbine or flywheel. We’re really looking at where hydrogen might fit as a key role in enabling us to get to the complete clean-energy future we want.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT AFFORDABILITY AND RELIABILITY? CAN YOUR SYSTEM BE 100% RENEWABLE OR CARBON-FREE WHILE ALSO BEING AFFORDABLE AND RELIABLE?
That literally could be the billiondollar question. California had some issues during the severe heat storms the last few years, and people forget how critical reliability has become, especially as the world is now so completely plugged in and virtually everything in our lives seems to be electronic. It’s an underplayed factor that people just assume electricity is going to be there.
For us, reliability is everything.
The challenge as we move forward with carbon-free and renewable energy is literally how do we keep the lights on all the time and in every situation.
I think this is where affordability becomes a challenge. Getting to 80% or 90% renewable energy is one thing, but the last percentages are going to be costly for what is basically an insurance policy—to buy into the facilities and infrastructure that may or may not get used or not used very often—but yet are critical to ensuring we have the ability to keep the power on and the voltage constant.
RECENT RESEARCH FROM A UCLA GRADUATE STUDENT FOCUSED ON THE LACK OF TRUST IN TAP WATER BY CERTAIN CUSTOMERS IN THE L.A. REGION, EVEN THOUGH WE KNOW LADWP’S WATER SUPPLY IS CLEARLY SAFE TO DRINK. WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE CUSTOMERS?
Some of our customers in L.A. may come from an area or a country where tap water wasn’t safe to drink, or maybe they live in an older building or home where the plumbing is old, and it might be corroded, galvanized pipe. Maybe it’s a visual problem with their water coming from onsite plumbing or it’s just an inherent distrust of water based on their personal history. It’s a tough challenge.
The education component really has to get out there. We have an opportunity to change perspectives of future generations and influence ideas often passed down through families. We’re reaching out into schools to teach kids about public utilities and their drinking water—not only about conservation, but also about what kind of care and treatment goes into the water.
I remember years ago doing a talk at a junior high school in San Pedro. A student came up to me afterward and said, “My mom won’t let us drink the water. She makes us drink the water from the hot water side because she says, ‘The hot water heaters sterilize it.’” I thought, “Oh my gosh.” This is a person who had no reason to think the water’s not safe. It tells me our message sometimes isn’t getting out there enough, and we just have to continue that education.
TELL US ABOUT LADWP’S FOCUS ON SOCIAL-EQUITY EFFORTS IN MAKING WATER AND POWER AFFORDABLE TO ALL RESIDENTS. LADWP HAS DONE A LOT TO UNDERSTAND HOW, FOR EXAMPLE, INCENTIVES ARE OFFERED TO DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COMMUNITY TO MAKE SURE THEY’RE FAIR.
Years ago, one of our former LADWP commissioners started an equity metrics program as a data-gathering initiative, which has given us some great insight. We started looking at how our programs affect the communities we serve.
For example, on rebates for solar rooftops, we looked at where those rebates are happening, and a heat map shows it’s not everywhere equally in the city. To get a solar rooftop rebate, you need to own your roof. What does this do for people who rent their house or they’re in multifamily housing? Our original program was well-intentioned and really moved the needle on rooftop solar, but it didn’t really apply well to all customers. We now offer expanded solar rooftops programs that can benefit a broader sector besides those fortunate enough to own their own home.
One of the things we look closely at is how to develop programs that target all parts of society and the community, especially underserved communities.
We are focusing investments in programs such as home insulation, because people who can least afford their bills are often the ones living in older homes that are the most inefficient at conserving water and power. We’ve also done a lot to expand our multifamily residential programs so there’s an incentive for building owners to make investments in their properties, even though their tenants will be the direct beneficiary of the resulting savings on their utility bills.
Ultimately, we are really trying to get more in tune with the communities that we serve. We’re creating an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which will not only be internal for employees, but also externally facing for purchasing and vendors and our supply chain.
It will also extend to the community at large. It will help us better engage and support all the communities we serve, particularly disadvantaged communities, which may have more difficulty accessing the programs and opportunities we have to offer.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF WATER AND ENERGY HEADED IN THE NEXT 10 TO 20 YEARS?
I’ve had a funny revelation in the last few years. My career advanced through the LADWP water system, where we built aqueducts and invested in imported water supplies. Now, everyone wants to “come back home.” Everything is becoming local, and all the emphasis is in lessening our footprint in places we use as resource areas or “resource colonies,” as people call them. It’s now all about stormwater capture, water reuse, local water resources—and trying to bring as much of our water supply as possible back home. And in truth, there is less impact to the environment, and it provides earthquake resilience and a lot of other tangible benefits.
On the flip side, we see kind of an opposite dynamic in the power system.
We built a lot of generation capacity locally and also tapped into faraway resources like Hoover Dam and hydro power from the Northwest. But with the emphasis on utility-scale renewables, everyone is “going out of town.” To meet our renewable energy goals, we will invest in large-scale solar and wind projects, which obviously have to be where large masses of land are available and where the wind blows reliably. We’ve already got power from five states, as well as large-scale projects in the California high desert. Our Red Cloud wind project is in New Mexico, which will tap into energy from a sixth state via long transmission lines. And we’re looking at wind in other states.
It’s interesting to be leading an agency where both sides of the house—water and power—are heading in essentially different directions when it comes to the makeup of their future resource mixes. While the situation is obviously not that absolute, in my mind I humorously picture our engineers waving to each other as they pass on the freeway, the power folks heading east into the desert, and after 100 years the water folks driving back home to L.A.