Thoughts on Building, Tearing Down, Solar Decathlons and Great Parks

Great Park Ballon Ride - Photo: Violeta Vaqueiro

Great Park Ballon Ride – Photo: Violeta Vaqueiro

The Solar Decathlon and XPO takes place this weekend; had it been held in Washington, DC, the government shutdown would have cancelled the event, so the virtue of the Great Park hosting the event, it’s still on.  I’ve been disappointed with the marketing of this event.  I see some banners on buses and some makeshift signs promoting the event, but it’s clear the promotion of the event to get people to come has been bad and done on the cheap.
The following essay was written by Tim Shaw, a former communications professional for the Great Park and now a chief development officer for an OC-based non-profit.  Tim posted this essay on this weekend’s Solar Decathlon on Facebook and I asked his permission to publish it; he gave me the go-ahead this morning and it’s a powerful piece.

This week, Irvine and the region will host an incredible event at the Orange County Great Park called the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon and XPO: Clean+Renewable+Efficient Energy Exposition. Irvine outbid over 20 cities in the U.S. to win the honor. How do I know this? As Manager of External Affairs for the Great Park at the time, I led the team (and I emphasize…TEAM) that developed the proposal, conducted the site visit, secured the event and created the plan. 

Right out of the gate, the excitement was palpable…Irvine chosen to be the first site ever outside the National Mall in D.C. to host this prestigious event! 20 college and university teams from around the world, assembling for 10 days, elevating engineering and architecture in the pursuit of energy efficiency and innovation, to an Olympic sport. Stanford, USC, CalTech, UC Santa Clara and universities from Prague, Canada, the Czech Republic and all across the U.S. would design and then build solar-powered, energy efficient homes for public display at the Great Park. I won’t expound too much on the details here. Please go to the website at to check it out and be amazed. 

So, how did Irvine beat out cities like Las Vegas, Austin, San Diego and Philadelphia to win the honor of hosting. Simple…one word: Vision. We proposed not just a fitting location for the Solar Decathlon (the concrete runways of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station at the Great Park could not be more perfect). We proposed what could never be done in the former location on the National Mall: a World’s Fair of clean, renewable & efficient energy, with the Solar Decathlon and these brilliant students as the centerpiece. A vision that could transform a city…a region…into the Silicon Valley of clean energy. 

Early on, exciting program plans were taking shape, sponsors were lining up, community partners were engaged and expectations were high. 

And then…an election happened. 

Let me pause for a moment here to say that I hope you all attend the Solar Decathlon and XPO. The Solar Decathlon is going to be great. Touring the homes alone is worth every penny of the admission price (FREE! with $5 parking). The XPO is going to be good. And that’s the problem…it could have been great. 

What do I mean by that? Well, why did so many cities bid on this project? Let’s do some math. 

We conducted an estimated economic impact analysis on the project to determine how beneficial it would be to Irvine and the surrounding region. Our conservative estimate was that it would generate nearly $32 million in economic impact, $12 million of which was direct. And what would Irvine be required to invest in order to receive this windfall? Effectively nothing. You read that right. 

Irvine received a $1 million grant from the DOE to stage the event and was required to match that with $1 million of its own. But that $1 million didn’t have to be cash. It could be staff time, the value of renting the runways and other in kind support. 

So, back to the math. It’s estimated that the DOE and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will spend around $15 million on the event. The teams will invest about $15 million collectively. Sponsors will invest around $4 million and program partners will invest around $1 million. That’s a $35 million investment in Irvine from folks other than the City. 

And the city’s investment: $1 million of sweat equity. 

Those investing the $40 million have no equity position. They will not see a dime of that investment returned to them. Irvine has a 100% equity position for the smallest amount of risk. 

You’d think this would drive Irvine to invest whatever it would take to draw the crowds necessary to achieve the estimated economic impact. You’d think. But… 

An election happened. 

I have been raising money for community and charitable causes for 25 years. Never in my career have I experienced the kind of enthusiasm from potential sponsors as I did in the early planning of the Solar Decathlon and XPO. I can tell when things are moving in the right direction…and they were. It was simply a matter of working out details, moving through process and getting to signed gift agreements. 

Then something strange started happening. The enthusiasm began to wane. Potential sponsors, some of whom I had relationships with that extended back over a decade, began backing out or simply not responding. After about the 7th or 8th time this happened, and a few conversations with trusted people within these companies, it became obvious to me that the toxicity and pettiness of the local election was driving sponsors away. As the election dragged on and public allegations were flung about malfeasance, forensic audits and cronyism, it got worse. 

There was still hope. We had developed an incredible program plan for the XPO, and the Solar Decathlon itself was a huge draw. Indeed, the long-time sponsors of the SD specifically re-upped, for the most part. But… 

An election happened. 

A new City Council majority was elected and they immediately (seriously…in their first meeting) set about dismantling the organization chart of staff and contractors working with me to plan the Solar Decathlon & XPO. We lost weeks and weeks of planning time. Sponsors further dried up or drastically reduced the support they were considering. And the program profile…the one that would draw the hundreds of thousands of visitors to achieve the $35 million economic impact…began to shrink. The Big Idea devolved into an adequate idea.  

Now, if you go to the Solar Decathlon & XPO, you will be impressed. The DOE and NREL folks are some of the best professionals I’ve ever worked with. Tom Burke, and his company Flying Bull, is a top notch event producer. He will work magic with the reduced resources he now has to stage the XPO. But he shouldn’t have to. 

You, and all those who attend, will never know what this could have been…and perhaps can be in the future…if the City’s leadership had even a tiny fraction of the vision and sense of possibility that guys like Richard King, the founder and Director of the Solar Decathlon for the DOE, have. 

To give you an idea about the thought process I encountered post-election, let me relay a story. When I informed the current Chair of the Great Park Corporation and Mayor Pro Tem of Irvine (then just a City Councilmember) that we had been chosen to host the Solar Decathlon, the first words out of his mouth were, “Solyndra.” I’m not kidding. There was no excitement. No sense of possibility. No dreams of the economic benefit to our city. Just a knee-jerk, Fox News-inspired “joke” about Solyndra. 

Indeed, if you view the current Chair of the Great Park’s Facebook page, there among the photos with local dignitaries and harangues against the “democrats” in Sacramento is not a single mention of the Solar Decathlon and XPO launching this week. The biggest event in Irvine history, and not a single word from the head of the organization hosting it. 

I am consistently struck and saddened by how quickly visionary work can be dismantled and destroyed by people whose sight extends no further than the immediate price tag or their own ideology.  And an agenda is not a vision. I left detailed recommendations when I departed, partly in response to the lack of support this project was receiving, on what it would take to make the XPO a world-class and catalytic event. Most of those recommendations have been ignored. 

It has been said that the enemy of the great is the good. The Solar Decathlon will be great. It always has been. The DOE and NREL organizers, and the incredible student geniuses, invest the resources necessary to make it so. The XPO will be good, and outside of a handful of people, those attending will never know how great it could have been. With a modest investment by the City, this could have been different…and the investment would have been recouped multi-fold! 

Why am I writing this? To a degree, it’s cathartic. I’ll admit to some lingering bitterness about it (perhaps one day, I’ll be above such things). I was so very passionate about this opportunity to do something earth-shattering. The disappointment that followed, as I stood at the epicenter, watching something with so much potential be dismantled and often ridiculed by those who should have been its staunchest advocates, was crushing. 

More so, I know that many of you approach your work in the same way…if we’re going to fail, we’re going to fail spectacularly! I know that you also confront pettiness, small-mindedness, absence of vision and the maniacal adherence to ideological purity over community good. You are fellow travelers in a world where our institutions, and more to the point, our leaders, are failing us…where dreams of visionary possibility and transformative endeavor are met with…well…”Solyndra.” 

I hope we can all support each other in the pursuit of greatness, transcending our proclivities to turn our political disagreements into personal enmities…not for the purposes of ego gratification. But because we all have a sacred responsibility to leave this place better for the generations to come. We won’t do that by settling for the good. 

Doing the right thing in this day and age often feels like being asked to move an iceberg by yourself. You press against it, and you know the laws of physics dictate that the force you are applying is having some impact. But you are forced to measure your success in infinitesimal increments, trusting that the effort is worth it. That the iceberg is moving. 

Keep pushing, my friends. Perhaps, hopefully in our lifetimes, we’ll experience an exponential leap forward as a result of our perseverance. Maybe that iceberg will jar loose and slide a few feet where a few inches were expected. 

Lastly, I want to acknowledge the people responsible for the vision of what the XPO could have been, many of whom were unceremoniously, and without thanks, dumped from the project for no reason other than petty politics. Sadly, many of them will receive no acknowledgment at the event, but there would be no event without them. 

Stu Mollrich, Alia Tirnanic and Kenny Smith from Forde & Mollrich, Steve Beazley, Marian Bergeson, Janet Ray, Carol Simon and all at the Foundation for the Great Park, Fred Smoller, Briana Lewis, Christine Tinsley, Sinan Kanatsiz (and all at KCOMM), Heather Reeves, Tom and Renee at Flying Bull, Heather Dion Stratman, Matt Hicks and Christopher Townsend from Townsend Public Affairs, Robert “Sully” Sullivan and Maria Elena Gutierrez from Chora Creative, Henry Korn, Tom Larson, AG Kawamura, Tom Grimm, Kim Mahon, Chris Baiocchi, Marcus Ginnaty, Marie Dickens, Mike Ellzey, Cliff Wallace, Gina Staropoli, Rod Cooper, Karena Lee, Beth Krom, Larry Agran, Sukhee Kang, Michael Pinto, Walkie Ray, Bill Kogerman and Miguel Pulido. 

So, please go and support the Solar Decathlon & XPO…and demand that if the DOE sees fit to bring this bi-annual event back to the Great Park in 2015, that we return to the vision that was originally laid out…one that will transform the region, and maybe the world.

  2 comments for “Thoughts on Building, Tearing Down, Solar Decathlons and Great Parks

  1. Allan Bartlett
    October 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Yeah those pesky voters threw a wrench in Larry’s schemes Tim. I hate when that happens.

  2. Tim Shaw
    October 3, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    The Solar Decathlon and XPO is nobody’s “scheme,” Allan. It’s an opportunity to bring economic development and jobs to our city and region. Regardless of which faction of the City Council won the election, it should have been supported to the fullest extent.

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