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.

 

Happy Earth Day 2019!

Today, Monday, April 22, is Earth Day.

Nearly 50 years ago, on April 22, 1970, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of 150 years of industrial development.

In the US and around the world, smog was becoming deadly and evidence was growing that pollution led to developmental delays in children. Biodiversity was in decline as a result of the heavy use of pesticides and other pollutants.

The global ecological awareness was growing, and the US Congress and President Nixon responded quickly.  In July of the same year, they created the Environmental Protection Agency, and robust environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among many.

Earth Day is now a global event each year, and more than 1 billion people in 193 countries now take part in what is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world.

The City of Irvine has been a leader in earth-friendly environmental policies, green technology, and environmental awareness.  Irvine’s environmental programs have been on the leading edge of advances in green building and construction, environmental education, recycling, water conservation, waste disposal, and energy-saving.

Irvine’s San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Geoff Fox.

Unfortunately, when Steven Choi was Irvine’s mayor, our city took several steps backwards. The term “climate change” was banned from all city documents and not enough Councilmembers made appointments to the Green Ribbon Environmental Committee to enable a quorum.

Mayor Steven Choi even refused to participate in the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, sponsored by Irvine’s own Wyland Foundation.

When I joined the Irvine City Council, I successfully pushed for revitalization of the Committee, which has now resumed its work of serving as the official environmental advisory committee, increasing public participation in energy conservation and sustainable practices, and helping the city serve the community through advancing environmental policy initiatives and programs.

I am delighted that the Committee now has the full support of the entire City Council, and both Mayor Don Wagner and Mayor Christina Shea have joined with other mayors across the country in asking residents to make a commitment to conserve water and protect this vital resource by taking part in annual Wyland Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, through the month of April.

One of the best — and most distinctive — qualities of Irvine is our commitment to preserving open space. The City of Irvine has more than 16,000 acres of permanently preserved parkland and open space – remarkable for a city of our size.

“The Sinks” — Irvine’s own Grand Canyon.

In 1974, early in our city’s history, voters approved multi-million dollar measures to fund public parks and recreational facilities, and for the acquisition and development of bicycle trail and hiking trail improvements.

In 1989, the City negotiated an historic agreement with the Irvine Company that set aside more than 9,500 acres as permanent open space marshlands, bike trails, parks, nature conservancies and agricultural areas, protecting fully one-third of the city from development.

In addition, in 2006, nearly 37,000 acres of the Irvine Ranch were selected as a National Natural Landmark, a designation which reflects the outstanding condition, rarity, diversity, and value to science and education of the natural resources on the land.

As our Irvine Open Space Preserve website explains, “Since its incorporation in 1971, Irvine has had a strong desire to balance the built and natural environment. As this incredible master-planned community has grown, each phase of development has been accompanied by the preservation and enhancement of natural open spaces, creating the network of parks, trails, and wildlands that residents and visitors may enjoy today and for generations to come.”

Bommer Canyon. Photo by Sanjay B. Dalal.

A crucial environmental issue facing Irvine in the near future is whether to switch from purchasing energy from SoCal Edison to utilizing a Community Choice Energy provider.

Community Choice Energy (CCE) is a program that brings local control and freedom of choice and competition into the electricity marketplace. Community Choice allows cities and counties to purchase power on behalf of their residents and businesses to provide cleaner power options at a competitive price.

It has been operating in California since 2002 following passage of Assembly Bill 117.

On September 25, 2018, the Irvine City Council approved conducting a feasibility study to determine the pros and cons of implementing a CCE program, including potential economic benefits for the community.

Community Choice programs enable local government control over energy procurement to purchase power, set competitive rates, and collect revenue. The local utility still maintains the electricity grid, deliver energy, and bill customers.

Community Choice Energy programs offer automatic enrollment to businesses and residences in its jurisdiction, with the ability for the customer to opt out and continue to purchase electricity from the utility. Customers have the option of choosing increased percentages of renewable energy.

Councilmember Melissa Fox with the artist Wyland at his studio in Irvine.

CCE programs in California generally procure and resell a power mix between 50 percent and 100 percent renewable energy to their customers.

Community Choice Energy can be one of the most powerful ways to accelerate the transition from fossil to cleaner renewable energy.

Community Choice introduces competition and consumer choice into the electricity sector with a focus on local, renewable energy to stimulate rapid innovations in clean energy systems.

By the mid 2020s, as much as 85% of Californians will be served by a Community Choice Energy program.

When our feasibility study is completed, I hope Community Choice Energy will soon be available in Irvine and throughout Orange County.

At our best, the City of Irvine has striven to be simultaneously people-friendly, business-friendly, and earth-friendly.

We must continue to insist that each phase of our City’s development be informed by science, accompanied by careful planning, and prioritize the preservation and enhancement of our environment.

Irvine History Happy Hour: The Portola Expedition

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

The topic this month is Gaspar de Portola and the Year 1769.

Did you know that the Portola expedition was motivated in part by expelling the Jesuits from Alta California and replacing them with Franciscans?

Did you know that of the original 219 men of the Portola expedition who left Baja California for the north on three ships, only about 100 survived to begin their journey from San Diego to Monterey?

Did you know that the Santa Ana River was originally called Río de los Temblores because Portola and his expedition experienced an earthquake while they were camped there?

Did you know that the Portola expedition arrived in what is now Irvine on July 26, 1769?

Did you know that we have fairly detailed information about the expedition because Portola and Father Juan Crespi kept diaries of the journey, and the expedition’s engineer, Miguel Constanso, later wrote up an official narrative of the trek?

You can learn more fascinating details about Gaspar de Portola, Father Junípero Serra, and their expedition, at the Irvine History Happy Hour on March 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 Make Irvine a More Environmentally Conscious and Responsible City: Apply to Join the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee!

As Chair of the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee, I am happy to announce that the City of Irvine is accepting applications to fill two member-at-large vacancies on the Committee.

Irvine’s Green Ribbon Committee is an official advisory committee and meets four times a year to discuss potential policies and make recommendations to the City Council.

The Green Ribbon Environmental Committee seeks to increase public participation in energy conservation and sustainable practices, helping the City serve the community through advancing environmental policy initiatives and programs.

The Committee is supported by the Public Works Department. Comprised of 10 members, the committee is an advisory body to the City Council and provides advice on sustainability policies related to energy, recycling and waste management, mobility, open space and water issues.

Selection will be based on:

· Professional or civic expertise in an environmental field, including, but not limited to, planning, environmental sciences, health, law, or related field.

· Educational experience in an environmental field, including, but not limited to, planning, ecology, geology, hydrology, or related field.

· Demonstrate concern for, and the desire to improve, the status of natural resources, and environment of the City of Irvine.

The Committee meets quarterly on the third Tuesday of the appropriate month, or as needed, at 4:30 p.m. at Irvine City Hall.

Applications are available at Irvine Civic Center, 1 Civic Center Plaza, 2nd Floor, Community Services Department, or online here.

Completed applications must be submitted by 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 20, to:

City Clerk
City of Irvine
1 Civic Center Plaza
Irvine, CA, 92623

Please direct any questions to Tricia Sosa at 949-724-7320 or tsosa@cityofirvine.org.

Help us as we help make Irvine a more environmentally conscious and responsible city.

Join Me Today at the Meeting of the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee!

Join me today, Monday, February 25, 2019, for the Irvine Green Ribbon Committee Meeting as we plan for making Irvine a more environmentally conscious and responsible city.

The meeting begins at 4:30 p.m. at Irvine City Hall.

Irvine’s Green Ribbon Committee is an official advisory committee and meets four times a year to discuss potential policies and make recommendations to the City Council.

The Green Ribbon Environmental Committee seeks to increase public participation in energy conservation and sustainable practices, helping the City serve the community through advancing environmental policy initiatives and programs.

The Committee is supported by the Public Works Department. Comprised of 10 members, the committee is an advisory body to the City Council and provides advice on sustainability policies related to energy, recycling and waste management, mobility, open space and water issues.

Committee meetings are open to the public and there will be a period for public comment.

Your input is essential as Irvine strives to become ever more environmentally responsible and a national leader in meeting the existential ecological demands of the future.

See you there!

Zot! The Dramatic Success of UC Irvine is Making Our City Better Educated and More Diverse!

Everyone knows that Irvine is changing.  Our city is becoming more populous and more diverse.

One of the major reasons for this change is the remarkable success of our city’s foundational institution and largest employer: The University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Founded in 1965, UCI now has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy.

UCI is now the most sought-after campus in the entire University of California system, according to a recent article in the Orange County Register.

The article reports that “The Irvine campus announced recently that 70,540 California students applied for admission as freshmen in the upcoming fall semester,  the most among the nine campuses in the UC system.”

Much of this growth is recent.  In fact, applications to UCI have increased by an amazing 32 percent just since 2015!

UCI’s growth has also led to a significant increase in the diversity of our City.  UCI has made a strong commitment to being an engine of social mobility for qualified individuals from nontraditional and disadvantaged circumstances.

As a result, UCI is now the top choice among UC schools for first-generation students and those from underrepresented minority groups and lower-income families.  Almost half of UCI’s freshman applicants come from immigrant backgrounds and are first-generation students.

As a member of the Irvine City Council, a former UCI student, and the wife of someone who who received his Masters and Ph.D. from UC Irvine, I want to congratulate UCI on its great success and pledge to help it continue making our city, our state, and our nation better educated and more diverse while ensuring a brighter future for Orange County and California!

Zot!

Join Me for the Grand Opening of Los Olivos Community Park and Center!

Join me on Saturday, March 2, 2019, for the Grand Opening of Los Olivos Community Park!

The dedication event will take place from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The new 12.5-acre Los Olivos Community Park features lighted baseball and soccer fields, a lighted basketball court, four tennis courts, and a musical-themed playground inspired by the former Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

In addition, the 6,700-square-foot community center features a large multipurpose room, warming kitchen, and patio area.

The dedication event will include:

  • Self-guided tours of the facility;
  • On-site tennis pro to answer questions about tennis programming; and
  • Entertainment by Concerts for Charities Club.

The sports fields, playground, and trails will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Los Olivos Community Center will be open to the public 9 a.m.– 9 p.m. Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. Saturday, and noon – 6 p.m. Sunday. Programming will include early childhood programs, youth camps, adult classes, and a variety of recreational offerings.

Los Olivos Community Park is located at 101 Alfonso, Irvine, CA 92618

No RSVP is needed for this free dedication event.

For more information, visit cityofirvine.org/specialevents or call 949-724-6814.

See you there!