UCI Named No. 1 College in U.S. for Sustainability. The City of Irvine Should Follow UCI’s Example and Adopt the Community Choice Energy Program and Stand-Alone Climate Action Plan We’ve Been Promised!

Congratulations to the University of California, Irvine (UCI), on being named the No. 1 “Cool School” in the nation by the Sierra Club in its annual ranking of sustainability leaders among U.S. colleges.

UCI is the only university to score in the top 10 for 10 consecutive years.

“As UCI is the only university to have ranked in the top 10 ‘Cool Schools’ for an unprecedented 10 years and counting, we’re continually impressed with its commitment to modeling, teaching and embodying excellent environmental stewardship in all areas,” said Katie O’Reilly, Sierra Magazine’s adventure and lifestyle editor. “The Anteaters are truly standouts in this increasingly important space.”

Colleges were ranked according to which ones offer the best sustainability-focused courses and carbon-neutral land and energy policies, as well as the most opportunities to engage with the environmental movement. UCI was recognized for EV charging stations and converting its central-cooling plant to a system that conserves over 80 million gallons of potable water per year while cooling campus buildings —17 of which are certified LEED Platinum and seven of which are zero-waste facilities. UCI also was recognized for creating a new pilot project to provide free insulation retrofits and solar installations in nearby low-income communities.  In addition, UCI researchers were recognized for their work in  adapting medical and public health curricula to better prepare students to treat tropical diseases as they expand in range due to climate change.

You can listen to a podcast on UCI’s “Cool School” Award, including UCI’s efforts regarding sustainability and achieving reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions here.

The City of Irvine has a lot to learn from UCI’s accomplishments.

Under Irvine Mayors Larry Agran, Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang, Irvine was indeed a world leader in environmental programs and innovation. One of the highlights of Irvine’s environmental engagement was presence of the U.S. Solar Decathlon at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. The Solar Decathlon is an international competition held every two years 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. The Solar Decathlon was held at the Great Park in 2013 and 2015.

Another highlight of Irvine’s environmental leadership was the creation of the Green Ribbon Environmental Committee in 2012.  The Green Ribbon Committee was charged with the crucial task of developing and recommending environmental policy initiatives and programs, including sustainability policies related to energy, recycling and waste management, mobility, open space and water issues.

Unfortunately, when Steven Choi became mayor of Irvine in November 2014, both the Great Park Solar Decathlon and the Green Ribbon Committee became victims of Choi’s climate change denial and hostility to environmental action.

As I’ve detailed in How Orange County Lost the U.S. Solar Decathlon, Steven Choi was hostile to the very premises of the Solar Decathlon — the need for replacing burning fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy.  In sharp contrast to the previous three Irvine mayors who championed environmental and climate concerns, Choi “completely question[ed] the idea of global warming being caused by human intervention.”  Rather than recognizing the importance of environmental action,  both as an opportunity for technological innovation and as an existential imperative, Choi saw all environmental concerns as anti-business and climate change as wholly unconnected to human activity. You can read the full story of the Solar Decathlon here.

Similarly, Choi sabotaged the Green Ribbon Environmental Committee. In fact, when I was elected to the Irvine City Council in November 2016, the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee had been inoperative for several years because Mayor Steven Choi and his allies on the Irvine City Council did not appoint sufficient members to constitute a quorum. In fact, the Committee did not meet during all of 2014 and 2016, cancelling every scheduled meeting. The words “climate change” and “global warming” were not permitted to be used in official City of Irvine publications or staff reports. Choi didn’t even allow the City of Irvine to participate in the Annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, sponsored by the Irvine-based Wyland Foundation.

As a longtime environmental activist, I wasn’t going to allow the City of Irvine to continue to ignore environmental issues and global warming. I convinced newly elected Mayor Donald P. Wagner, who replaced Steven Choi, to re-invigorate the Green Ribbon Environmental Committee and appoint me to the Committee as the City Council’s representative.  I then appointed Krishna Hammond, a young progressive scientist, as my representative to the Committee and encouraged the other Councilmembers to make appointments.  At our first meeting, I was elected Chair of the Committee and Krishna was elected Vice Chair.  The Green Ribbon Environmental Committee was out of Choi-imposed exile and was off and running.

I am extremely proud of the work we’ve done and the things we’ve accomplished since then.

Perhaps most important, we commissioned a study of Community Choice Energy (CCE) and then recommended that the City Council follow its recommendation to implement a CCE plan with an expected savings of $7.7 million per year in citywide electricity cost savings for Irvine residents and businesses, and a $112,000 per year savings for the City itself in municipal energy costs, as well as driving additional local economic development benefits, such as new jobs and $10 million in annual economic output. 

Now I am concerned that the work we’ve done on CCE is about to be undermined by the current City Council leadership.  I have learned that CCE advocates have been getting “push back” from the City and the City Manager.

The Green Ribbon Committee also recommended swift adoption of a stand-alone Climate Action Plan, so that, in the words of climate activist Robin Raeder Ganahl, “Irvine residents know what the City’s plan is to reduce emissions, meet state targets, and protect our quality of life.” Again, I am now concerned that the current City Council leadership has no intention of adopting a stand-alone Climate Action Plan, and is simply sitting on the Green Ribbon Committee’s recommendation with no intention to move forward.

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

We’ve made progress since the days when Steven Choi drove the U.S. Solar Decathlon out of town, shut down the Green Ribbon Environmental Committee, refused to participate in the Wyland Foundation’s Water Challenge, and banned the words “climate change” and “global warning.”

But there is still much to be done. In particular, the current Irvine City Council leadership needs to show that its professed concern for action on climate change and protecting the environment isn’t just lip service and a public relations smokescreen.

Instead, the City Council needs to adopt a stand-alone Climate Action Plan that we’ve been promised and implement the Community Choice Energy program that we’ve shown to be a tremendous benefit to both the City and the planet. 

 

Show Your Support for a Great Park Botanical Gardens at our Board Meeting on Tues., October 22, 2019!

If you’re a supporter of botanical gardens in the Orange County Great Park, please attend the important Great Park Board Meeting on Tues., October 22, 2019, at 1:00 p.m. in the Irvine City Council Chambers.

This meeting is scheduled to include a development status update and accounting of projects currently proposed in the Orange County Great Park.

Of special concern to supporters of Great Park Botanical Gardens is the fact that there is no funding or acreage currently allotted or proposed for a botanical gardens.

You can read the Great Park Board Meeting agenda HERE.

You can read the staff report on Great Park development HERE.

It is crucial that supporters of a Great Park Botanical Gardens show up to the meeting and make your voices heard!

I have long been a strong advocate for botanical gardens and museums in the Great Park’s Cultural Terrace.  Every survey we’ve done has shown that gardens are among amenities that people most want in the Great Park. The Orange County Register reported that “Gardens were among the most popular features in the surveys, according to the city staff report. Eighty-two percent of Orange County residents said they are at least somewhat interested in having botanical gardens at the Great Park, when they were asked specifically about the feature.”

I agree with the Great Park Garden Coalition that “We need places where children can experience nature and explore, where all can find refuge from the ever-increasing urban density and traffic, where people of all ages and abilities can experience beautiful outdoor spaces. All great urban parks have great garden spaces: Golden Gate Park, Central Park, Balboa Park.”

I also continue to agree with what Joyce Mann wrote in the Voice of OC in 2017: “Gardens are an inclusive, a-political opportunity to bring community together for generations. They are a public benefit that becomes a lasting legacy. Besides being beautiful to look at, education is fundamental to the mission of botanical gardens. Through them, we have an opportunity to teach students of all ages about developing environmental awareness and to learn about plant science, gardening and the ecology of our local forests, rivers and wetlands. Botanical gardens become a living plant museum that will inform visitors about the importance and often-irreplaceable value of plants to the well-being of humans and to the earth’s fragile ecosystems. Isn’t that the very definition of a legacy?”

My top priorities for the Great Park Cultural Terrace are a world-class Botanical Gardens and a California Natural History Museum. I want them moving forward without any more unnecessary delays or unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. I will continue to fight for them until they are a reality.

I appreciate that gardens and museums are not necessarily revenue-producing amenities. But as reported in OC Weekly, “Great Park Director/City Councilwoman Melissa Fox said that, ‘I will also insist that we follow the recommendations of residents and build world-class botanical gardens, museums and a lake to make Irvine the home of a truly Great Park.’ But most heartening, on May 22, Fox pushed back on the notion that everything in the Cultural Terrace must generate a lot of revenue. ‘The Cultural Terrace is the Cultural Terrace,’ she told Irvine planners and consultants at the Great Park board meeting. ‘Not the Commercial Terrace.'”

Please show up at our meeting at 1:00 p.m. on Tues., October 22, 2019, and give voice to the strong community support for a Great Park Botanical Gardens!

 

 

Join Us on Thursday, September 19, at 5:30–6:30 p.m. for Public Outreach on the Universal Playground Project at Sweet Shade Neighborhood Park!

Please join us on Thursday, September 19, at 5:30–6:30 p.m. for the City’s public outreach opportunity regarding the Sweet Shade Ability Center at Sweet Shade Neighborhood Park. 

This event is the public’s first opportunity to provide input that will help guide the planning and design for this important Universal Playground project.

In July 2019, the City’s Disability Services program relocated its offices from City Hall to Sweet Shade Neighborhood Park. As a renovated facility, the Sweet Shade Ability Center provides a larger, more accessible, and inviting hub for the delivery of Disability Services activities to Irvine residents. To complement this use, the City proposes to develop the City’s first Universal Playground.

Universal playgrounds are designed to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design, including theme-oriented playground equipment, site furnishings, and shade canopies that are well integrated with the existing park, leaving no child on the sidelines.

This public outreach event will include a staff-led tour of the existing playground and potential locations for integrating universal play elements or developing an adjacent universal playground. Planning staff will be present to answer questions about the project, and participants will be able to sign up and receive project updates.

Universal Playgrounds are designed to provide inclusive and meaningful play experiences for children of all ages and abilities. Your input will help the City of Irvine create a unique and meaningful play environment that meets universal developmental needs by providing opportunities for physical, cognitive, communicative, social/emotional, and sensory development for all children to the greatest extent possible.

I’m excited to join Irvine Community Services Commission Chair Lauren Johnson-Norris and other City officials who have been working for all of Irvine’s children at this important event.

Date: Thursday, September 19, 2019
Time: 5:30–6:30 p.m.
Location:Sweet Shade Ability Center at Sweet Shade Neighborhood Park, 15 Sweet Shade, Irvine CA 92606

See you there!

Urge the Irvine City Council to Adopt a Climate Action Plan Without Delay!

I’m unable to attend the Tuesday, July 9, 2019, Irvine City Council meeting because I’m on a long-planned trip to visit my son in Alaska.

Although I’m not able to be present, I urge you to attend the City Council meeting and speak in support of the City creating a Climate Action Plan without delay.

Action on climate and the environment have been crucial issues for me as a member of the Irvine City Council and as Chair of the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee.

Interestingly, I’m unable to attend the City Council meeting because I’m currently in Glacier Bay National Park, which is perhaps the place on earth where the effects of climate change can most dramatically be seen.

The magnificent tidewater glaciers here have been receding at an alarming rate because over time the snowpack has been inadequate to counteract the impact of long-term temperature increase.

In addition, the sky here is thick with smoke from more than 120 wildfires, because Alaska, like California, is suffering from the effects of long-term drought as well as climate change.

From my current vantage point in Glacier Bay National Park, there is no greater issue demanding action than climate change.

Please read the very compelling letter that Climate Action Campaign Orange County has sent to members of the Irvine City Council, explaining the urgent need for — and the benefits of — a swift adoption of a Climate Change Plan for Irvine.

As Climate Action Campaign Orange County Organizer Robin Raeder Ganahl has aptly stated, “Irvine residents deserve to know what the City’s plan is to reduce emissions, meet state targets, and protect their quality of life!”

I hope you can attend the Tuesday, July 9, 2019, Irvine City Council meeting, as well as write to the Mayor and the City Council, explaining why this issue matters to you.

Your participation in support of Irvine’s adoption of a Climate Action Plan can make a very big difference, not just for our generation but for generations to follow.

Thanks!

Join Me at the Green Ribbon Committee Meeting on Monday, June 24, to Discuss the Community Choice Energy Study!

Community Choice Energy (CCE) is a way for cities, counties or regions in California to look out for their own energy interests, a hybrid between regulated and deregulated electricity supply. CCE programs seek to provide energy that is cheaper and cleaner than energy provided by for-profit utility companies.

Under a CCE program, the local utility company still provides all of the billing services and infrastructure to supply electricity to the point of use, but they are no longer responsible for selecting the electricity supplier. Instead, the community chooses its energy supplier. CCEs across the state are now offering more renewable energy content, and at lower cost, than the electricity supplied by the utility company.

On September 25, 2018, before a standing-room crowd, I joined with my colleagues on the Irvine City Council in voting to commission a feasibility study to determine the pros and cons of implementing a CCE program in Irvine, including potential economic benefits for the community.

The proposal for a feasibility study of CCE in Irvine was initially developed and endorsed by the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Committee, which I have the honor to serve as Chair.

We now have that study, as EES Consulting has completed a comprehensive analysis of the viability (including costs and benefits) of a Community Choice Energy program in Irvine.

Among the study’s crucial conclusions is the projection that a CCE in Irvine would result in $7.7 million per year in citywide electricity cost savings for Irvine residents and businesses, and a $112,000 per year savings for the City itself in municipal energy costs.

The study further reports that implementation of a CCE program in Irvine is likely to drive additional local economic development benefits, such as new jobs and $10 million in annual economic output.

While the study notes that there is some risk involved, it also points to several strategies by which these risks could be mitigated and managed.

As a member of the Irvine City Council and as Chair of the Green Ribbon Commission, I am tremendously excited by this study and its conclusions.

The Green Ribbon Environmental Committee will be discussing the study and next steps to take regarding implementation of Community Choice Energy in Irvine at our meeting on Monday, June 24, 2019, at 4:30 in Room L102 at Irvine City Hall. 

I urge everyone interested to attend the meeting and to speak up for cleaner, cheaper energy.

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!

 

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.