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.

 

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.

Sunday, March 30, is Earth Hour 2019

This Saturday, March 30, join millions of people around the world in switching off your lights and electronics from 8:30 – 9:30 p.m. for Earth Hour.

Starting as a symbolic lights out event in Sydney in 2007, Earth Hour is now the world’s largest grassroots movement for the environment, inspiring millions of people to take action for our planet and nature.

As a member of the Irvine City Council, I have been able to reinstate and vitalize the Irvine Green Ribbon Environmental Commission, which seeks to increase public participation in energy conservation and sustainable practices, helping the City serve the community through advancing environmental policy initiatives and programs.

I’ve also helped move the City toward adopting Community Choice Energy, which allows cities and counties to purchase power on behalf of their residents and businesses to provide cleaner power options at a competitive price.

In addition, I’ve helped to make Irvine a national leader in finding non-toxic solutions to weed and pest control, and finding effective, non-toxic and eco-friendly ways to maintain Irvine’s open spaces and reduce fire danger.

I’ve helped Irvine increase our iShuttle program by 50 percent, and worked to improve Irvine’s bike trails for recreation and commuting.

But we need to do more, and faster. Most importantly, we need to step up efforts to switch from using fossil fuels – the biggest cause of climate change – to clean, renewable energy.  And we need to help people and nature adapt to the inevitable changes ahead.

Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.  It affects every corner of our planet – from the poles to the tropics, and from the mountains to the oceans. People and nature worldwide are already feeling the effects: water supplies are shrinking, extreme weather events increasing in frequency and intensity, forests burning, and coral reefs dying.

All around the world, governments and communities are coming together to act –- and we can still escape the worst impacts of climate change, and build a safer future for all.

You can find out more about Earth Hour and how you can participate at EarthHour.org.

You can also find out more about what Irvine is doing to preserve and protect our planet, and what else you can do, at https://www.cityofirvine.org/environmental-programs/make-earth-day-every-day.

Our connection to Earth and nature is undeniable: our planet’s gain is everyone’s gain.

Nature not only provides us with all the things we need to live — from the air we breathe to the water we drink, and from the shelter we need to the economy we rely on — but also makes our lives better.  But its growing loss puts this all under threat.

This Earth Hour, join millions around the world to turn off the lights and speak up about why nature matters!

Join Me for a Community Choice Energy Workshop!

Join me on Sunday, March 17, 2019, 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., for Community Choice Energy Workshop!

SoCal Edison rates are going up in March 2019 under the new time of use rate plan, so there’s never been a better time to look into a local not-for-profit alternative – Community Choice Energy.

What is Community Choice Energy?

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.

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 will it be available in Orange County?

Join us Sunday, March 17th to learn:

  • What is Community Choice Energy?
  • How 160 cities across California are already benefiting from community choice energy.
  • What is the status of Irvine’s community choice study & what comes next?
  • What you can do to advocate for community choice in Irvine or your city.

Featuring:

The Workshop location is Irvine United Congregational Church, 4915 Alton Parkway, Irvine, CA 92604

This event is free and open to the public.

Donations appreciated to offset the cost of food/drink and/or to support Climate Action Campaign’s expansion to Orange County.

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!

UCI Sets “Green” Example for City of Irvine

UCI aerial.01

Congratulations to the Univerisity of California, Irvine, on its selection as the 2014 “Greenest School in the Nation,” according to the Sierra Club’s magazine. The Sierra Club is the nation’s largest and oldest environmental organization.

The decision was based on a survey of America’s four-year degree-granting undergraduate colleges conducted by four organizations: the Sierra Club, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI), and the Princeton Review.

President Obama speaking at UC Irvine 2014

UCI came in first out of the 173 colleges that completed the survey by scoring 813.51 out of a possible total of 1000 points.

According to the Sierra Club Magazine, “In 2008, UC Irvine vowed to improve its energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020, then hit that target seven years early, making it the first U.S. school to achieve that goal. Then administrators doubled down by pledging an additional 20 percent energy reduction by 2020. Helping the matter: three on-site solar power projects and a 19-megawatt cogeneration plant with turbines powered by combustion and steam. The school’s water-recycling program saves more than 210 million gallons per year.”

This recent recognition by the Sierra Club comes just a few weeks after President Obama, at his UCI Commencement Address, lauded UC Irvine for “set[ing] up the first Earth System Science Department in America. A UC Irvine professor-student team won the Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs destroy the ozone layer.  A UC Irvine glaciologist’s work led to one of last month’s report showing one of the world’s major ice sheets in irreversible retreat. Students and professors are in the field working to predict changing weather patterns, fire seasons, and water tables – working to understand how shifting seasons affect global ecosystems; to get zero-emission vehicles on the road faster; to help coastal communities adapt to rising seas. And when I challenge colleges to reduce their energy use to 20 percent by 2020, UC Irvine went ahead and did it last year.  Done.  So UC Irvine is ahead of the curve. All of you are ahead of the curve.”

To me, one of UCI’s most impressive “green” achievements is ZotWheels, an  innovative bike sharing system.  As UCI explains, ZotWheels is “the first automated self-service bike share program in California . . .  Almost a pound of tailpipe emissions will be saved for every mile a member rides a bike instead of driving.  Bike sharing allows faculty, students, and staff an alternative to driving when making short-distance trips during the work and school day, as well as addressing important issues such as health and environmental sustainability, the future of transportation, and promoting community building on campus. Bike sharing already exists in many European cities, such as Paris and Barcelona. Take our bikes for a short ride around the inner ring, to the park, to a meeting, or to class.  ZotWheels are meant to be shared; so rent one, ride it, return it and repeat any time you want to bring a little fun to your day!”

Irvine Commissioner Melissa Fox at 2013 Solar Decathlon

Irvine Commissioner Melissa Fox at Solar Decathlon

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

The City of Irvine ought to be a leader in creating sustainable communities that incorporate smart growth principles, public transit and active transportation access to work, parks, shopping and recreation. Our heritage as a master planned community and our long-standing commitment to well-planned smart growth ought to make Irvine a natural leader in promoting green building practices and smart growth principles.

Unfortunately, in recent years we have set our environmental goals too low.  Nor is the current council majority committed to smart, green growth, instead approving frantic growth and development at any cost.

The result of the current council’s rubber-stamping of developers’ proposals has been runaway development of housing tracts and apartments causing terrible traffic and overcrowded schools – posing a clear and present danger to our quality of life.

Irvine is positioned to become a leader in renewable energy use.  Last year, the Solar Decathlon was held for first time outside of Washington, D.C. – at the Great Park, in Irvine. Despite a lukewarm, anti-environmentally conscious majority on the city council, the event was successful.  The 2015 Solar Decathlon will be held once again here in Irvine. And a team from Orange County, led by UC Irvine, will be in the competition.  This time, with an enthusiastic and committed city council and thoughtful promotion and planning, the event could have much more wide-ranging and economically beneficial impact for the city.  But before that can happen – and before Irvine can claim the title of the nation’s energy innovation capitol – we must elect a city council committed to making solar and renewable energy a far more significant energy source for Irvine’s city buildings, homes and businesses.

So congratulations UC Irvine!  You’ve shown us the direction that the City of Irvine should be taking.