How Orange County Lost the U.S. Solar Decathlon

In a recent article in the Voice of OC, Chapman University Professor Fred Smoller and former U.S. Department of Energy official Richard King make a convincing case for a California version of the U.S. Solar Decathlon. The problem is, there already was a California-based Solar Decathlon – located at the Great Park in Irvine – until lack of support and mismanagement by the administration of then-mayor Steven Choi forced the U.S. Department of Energy to find another location elsewhere.

The U.S. Solar Decathlon, which has been sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy approximately every two years since 2002, is an award-winning international competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The houses are assembled at a central location for display, evaluation, and awards. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

As Smoller and King point out, since the Solar Decathlon’s inception in 2002, more than a dozen California colleges and universities have participated, but no California colleges or universities are slated to participate in the next competition in 2020.

This lack of California participation is troubling, Smoller and King note, because the Solar Decathlon introduces new solar energy technologies to the market and accelerates their implementation; increases and educates the ‘clean tech’ workforce; educates consumers about clean energy; and demonstrates that energy-efficient and solar-powered housing is attainable, practical, and beautiful.

Smoller and King further point out that “as the U.S. surrenders its leadership position on fighting climate change, other nations have stepped in: Solar Decathlons are now being held in Europe, China, the Middle East and Africa. In addition to combating climate change, countries in these regions — especially China — are positioning themselves to take full advantage of the rapidly expanding green economy.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Smoller and King in endorsing a California Solar Decathlon.

California is the ideal location for a Solar Decathlon. California leads the nation, and the world, in developing new and cleaner energy technologies. We are leaders in requiring more effective clean energy standards and in fighting climate change. “To maintain California’s leadership position in the field of clean energy, we must harness the creative energy of our youth, the academic community, industry and labor. By working together, this competition could set a new milestone in clean energy and help make California the sustainability capital of the world.”

Significantly, in both 2013 and 2015, the Solar Decathlon was held right here at the Great Park – until lack of support and mismanagement by the administration of then-mayor Steven Choi forced the U.S. Department of Energy to find another location elsewhere.

It was an incredible achievement in January 2012 when the Great Park team was awarded a $1 million grant to bring the 2013 Solar Decathlon and the XPO in Irvine – the very first time such an award had been made and first time the Decathlon will be held outside of Washington, D.C.

As then-Great Park Board Chair Beth Krom stated at the time, the Solar Decathlon was expected to “bring worldwide attention and economic development to the Great Park and the region and raise public awareness about the benefits of clean energy and energy conservation.”

As I wrote at the time, I was “excited about the potential economic and technological impact that the Solar Decathlon will have for Irvine and Orange County in the future.”

But once the Solar Decathlon contract was awarded, the Irvine City Council, now led by Mayor Steven Choi, completely bungled the opportunity.

First, Mayor Choi and his allies on the Irvine City Council and the Great Park Board (which were then, as now, one and the same) dismissed the public relations firm that had been instrumental in getting the Energy Department to award the Solar Decathlon contract to the Great Park, without hiring any replacement firm – or even adopt a plan – to handle the publicity for the event. The result was far less attendance than been had anticipated when it was assumed that the Solar Decathlon would be properly publicized.

Melissa Fox attending the 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon at the Orange County Great Park as an Irvine Community Services Commissioner.

Next, Mayor Choi and his allies on the City Council failed to provide proper signage and directions for the event, so that many people who planned to attend could not locate the venue within the uncompleted Great Park.

The City also failed to partner with science, engineering or community based groups to promote and engage with the Solar Decathlon.

In fact, Mayor Choi and his allies on the City Council were hostile to the very premises of the Solar Decathlon. It had been the idea of former Mayor Larry Agran to bring the Solar Decathlon to the Great Park, and the contract was awarded during Agran’s tenure as mayor. Choi never embraced the event as truly belonging to Irvine or the Great Park, instead viewing it with suspicion as belonging to Agran and to Obama’s environmentally pro-active and climate change conscious Department of Energy.

Crucially, Choi did not share the Solar Decathlon’s basic rationale: concerns about the impact of human-caused climate change and the need for new, clean, energy technologies. Rather, Choi told his fellow Republicans that while “it is good to keep the environment clean but [he] completely questions the idea of global warming being caused by human intervention. He opposes cap and trade and other government imposed environmental regulations, calling them an extreme effort to tax businesses and economic growth.”

In line with this anti-scientific thinking regarding the relationship between climate change and human use of fossil fuels, Choi not only cared nothing about ensuring the success of the Solar Decathlon, but ended Irvine’s participation in the Wyland Foundation’s National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation and failed to appoint a quorum for the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee, causing that important committee – which I revived, along with Mayor Don Wagner, and which I now chair – to cease meeting for the years that Choi was mayor.

As I said in 2016 when the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the Solar Decathlon would be held in Denver, not the Orange County Great Park, “It is extremely disappointing that the Solar Decathlon will no longer he held in Irvine because the Irvine City Council refused to support the continuation of the Solar Decathlon in the Great Park. The Solar Decathlon served as an international showcase for our city — our businesses and educational institutions — as among the world’s leaders in scientific and environmental innovation, but our shortsighted City Council has allowed this tremendous opportunity to go elsewhere.”

In sum, I agree with Fred Smoller and Richard King that a Solar Decathlon in California– a “leading-edge design competition which promotes innovation, education, and market expansion” of clean energy technologies – would be great for our students, teachers, schools and businesses.  That’s why it’s such a pity that the Solar Decathlon was once here in the Great Park, until the event was mismanaged, and the opportunity was squandered, by the Irvine City Council led by Steven Choi.

 

Congratulations to Irvine on Earning Top Parks Rating in California and 6th in the Nation!

The City of Irvine park system has been ranked 6th in the nation by the Trust for Public Land annual ParkScore Index, effectively making Irvine the top-ranked city in California.

Significantly, with new parks, open space, and amenities added over the past year, the City rose from last year’s ranking of 10th in the nation, climbing up four places.

The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore rankings assess the nation’s 100 largest cities on factors such as park access, acreage, investment, and amenities. Irvine earned a perfect sore in park spending per resident, and is second in the national for basketball hoops per 10,000 residents.

Among the factors considered in the evaluation is the fact that 80 percent of Irvine’s residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park (compared to a national average of 54 percent) and that 27 percent of Irvine’s city land is used for parks and recreation (compared to a national average of 15 percent).

Of special note, the ParkScore Index did not find any significant difference regarding closeness to parks in Irvine based on the race, nationality, age, or income level of Irvine residents.

The ParkScore Index includes parks, facilities, and amenities managed by the City, either through ownership or joint-use agreements.

The full ParkScore Index is available at tpl.org/parkscore, including score details and demographic information for each city.

Learn more about Irvine parks at cityofirvine.org/parks.

The Trust for Public Land works to protect the places people care about and to create close-to-home parks — particularly in and near cities, where 80 percent of Americans live. It’s goal is to “ensure that every child has easy access to a safe place to play in nature. We also conserve working farms, ranches, and forests; lands of historical and cultural importance; rivers, streams, coasts, and watersheds; and other special places where people can experience nature close at hand.”

Congratulations to my City Council colleagues, our City Manager and City staff, and our Community Services Commissioners, especially our Irvine Community Services Commission Chair Lauren Johnson-Norris!

 

Irvine History Happy Hour: Irvine’s First Schoolhouses

You are invited to join the Irvine Historical Society on Sunday, February 24, from 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. for an engaging and timely “Let’s Talk History” Happy Hour.

The topic this month is first schoolhouses in Irvine.

Did you know that the first schoolhouse in Irvine was built in 1898, when James H. Irvine had a school constructed for the children of his tenant farmers.

The school was located on Central Avenue (now Sand Canyon).  By 1911, the school had an enrollment of 100 pupils with an average daily attendance of 80.

A second and larger schoolhouse was built in 1929, on the northeastern edge of town, near present day Sand Canyon and the 5 Freeway.

You can learn about the tragic history of what happened to this schoolhouse, and more fascinating details of Irvine history at the History Happy Hour on February 24.

Light refreshments will be served. A $5 donation is requested.

The Irvine Historical Society is located in the San Joaquin Ranch House, commissioned by James Irvine in 1868 and considered the oldest standing structure within the original boundaries of Irvine Ranch.

Standard hours of operation are Tuesday and Sunday from 1 to 4; closed holidays. Members are free; a $1.00 donation per non-member is appreciated.

One-hour walking tours of Old Town Irvine are available on the first Sunday of each month at 11:30 a.m. Free for members; $5 for non-members.

Help Shape the Future of Irvine’s Community Programs! Take Our Resident Activity Survey Today!

The City of Irvine, through the Community Services Department, is conducting a Resident Activity Survey about recreational activities offered to the community.

Results from the survey will be used to assess how City activities and programs meet the needs of the community, and how the City can continue to accommodate future needs.

We value input from the community and welcome you to take this important survey.

Questions cover City activities that you and members of your household may have participated in, and those you might want to see offered in the future.

The survey may be taken in English, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Spanish or Vietnamese.

Share your feedback and take the online survey here!

For questions, contact 949-724-6156.

Help shape the future of Irvine programs and take our survey today!

Irvine History Happy Hour: “A Traditional Irvine Ranch Thanksgiving”

You are invited to join the Irvine Historical Society this Sunday, November 18 from 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. for an engaging and timely “Let’s Talk History” Happy Hour.

The topic this month is “A Traditional Irvine Ranch Thanksgiving.”

Come share your holiday traditions and a favorite recipe!

Light refreshments will be served. A $5 donation is requested.

The Irvine Historical Society is located in the San Joaquin Ranch House, commissioned by James Irvine in 1868 and considered the oldest standing structure within the original boundaries of Irvine Ranch.

Standard hours of operation are Tuesday and Sunday from 1 to 4; closed holidays. Members are free; a $1.00 donation per non-member is appreciated.

One-hour walking tours of Old Town Irvine are available on the first Sunday of each month at 11:30 a.m. Free for members; $5 for non-members.

Commissioner Lauren Johnson-Norris: My Commitment to Irvine’s High Quality Parks and Recreation

Guest Post by Irvine Community Services Commissioner Lauren Johnson-Norris

[Note: Lauren Johnson-Norris has served Irvine for nearly two years as my appointee to the Community Services Commission. She recently wrote a blog post describing her work on the Commission, particularly her efforts to renovate the beautiful and rustic Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp and to ensure high quality recreational park space in the urban-feeling Irvine Business Complex. I am proud of the work that she has done what she has accomplished as my appointee to the Community Services Commission and I want to share her post with you. — Melissa]

As an Irvine Community Services Commissioner for the past year and 10 months, my number one priority has been making sure that our children and families experience the highest quality recreation. With over 90 unique parks, Irvine has won awards for being one of the best places to live and raise a family. As a Commissioner, I am proud of the work I have done making sure that our parks live up to Irvine’s high standards.

That is why I am so proud to have voted to begin improvements to Bommer Canyon’s Cattle Camp.

Bommer Canyon has been surveyed to be Irvine’s most loved and used community park space for excellent reasons. Bommer Canyon is a quintessential example of Irvine’s successful weaving of open space with world-class recreation. What was once an active cattle camp only 30 years ago is now a cherished, rustic hiking area.

However, the structures have been out of code and out of ADA compliance for many years. Termites and rodents have made these structures home and there is no real restroom in this community park. I am excited to have been able to vote to approve the beginning of a rehabilitation project that will make this space safer, and ADA compliant, without sacrificing its rustic feel and aesthetic.  I am also happy to share that I fought to make sure that the final design plans and materials will come back for approval in front of the Community Services Commission before they go to the City Council.

All of the Commissioners want to make sure that we preserve the unique character of the cattle camp for residents to enjoy a true piece of Irvine’s history.

I love how Irvine’s parks are as diverse as the members of our community. During my term as a Commissioner, I have fought for park space in the Irvine Business Complex and approved several parks that met Irvine residents’ high standards in this uniquely urban-feeling space.

Unfortunately, not all park proposals from developers that come before the Commission are up to Irvine’s high standards. Some have to be voted down because their design is faulty and fails to meet the standards that Irvine requires for a park.

This year, all five Commissioners voted not to approve a proposed park in the Irvine Business Complex that would have been on the roof of a building, with a swimming pool and tot lot, that the public would have had to access by taking the building’s elevators.

In reality, this proposal was not a feasible park plan and putting park space on the roof is not consistent with the character of any Irvine neighborhood.  Rejecting this faulty plan was a unanimous decision of the Community Services Commission and one we made with the best interest of Irvine residents in mind.

It has been a privilege to work to make sure Irvine’s parks and recreation are of the highest quality and live up to our residents’ standards. Careful planning and sound decision-making is critical to preserve and protect Irvine’s excellent quality of life and I am proud of my work to contribute in this way.

Attend the Final Public Hearing on Bommer Canyon Restoration — Wednesday, October 17

Members of the Irvine community are invited to provide comment at the final public hearing on Wednesday, October 17, 2018, on proposed plans for the rehabilitation and preservation of Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp.

Bommer Canyon.towerThe Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp rehabilitation project focuses on refreshing the 15-acre Cattle Camp, originally built in 1967. The proposed rehabilitation includes site layout revisions, accessibility improvements, replacement of portable buildings, addition of permanent restroom facilities, and landscaping improvements.

The final hearing on the plans for the rehabilitation of Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp will be held by the Irvine Community Services Commission at 5:30 p.m. at Irvine City Hall, 1 Civic Center Plaza.

No RSVP is required.

Learn more about the project to date as well as the public response to community surveys here.

You may also submit comments to the City by contacting Darlene Nicandro at 949-724-7462, via email at dnicandro@cityofirvine.org(link sends e-mail) or mail at P.O. Box 19575, Irvine, CA 92623-9575.

For more information, call 949-724-7462 or visit cityofirvine.org/cattlecamp.