Orange County: The World’s Sustainability Capital
Fred Smoller and Michael A. Moodian
What comes to mind when you think of Silicon Valley? Personal computers, right? And Nashville? Country music. Similarly, we think Orange County should be known as a hub for Sustainability. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. OC’s economy: Diversified and growth oriented
Orange County has an entrepreneurial culture that has allowed itself to repeatedly reinvent its economy. During its 134-year history, Orange County’s economy has evolved significantly through various sectors, including an emphasis on ranching, agriculture, defense, entertainment, high-tech, and the service industries. Clean-tech should be the next chapter in Orange County’s economic history. There are already more than 300 clean-tech companies–including several EV makers– in the Southern California region according to Sustain SoCal President Scott Kitcher. The public sector has already taken the lead. For example, the Orange County Water District is one of the world’s leaders in water recycling and the Orange County Transportation Authority is now testing plug-in battery electric buses.
2. OC gets a lot of sun
California, along with Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico are the sunniest U.S. states. According to Environment America’s Shining Cities report (2022), two of the top five U.S. cities–San Diego and San Jose–produce the most solar power per capita of all U.S. cities. Given that solar now accounts for 14% (California Energy Commision, 2021) of California’s power mix–a percentage that is guaranteed to grow given the state’s commitment to weaning itself of fossil fuels–sunny OC is ideally situated to take advantage of this zero-CO2 energy source.
3. Price of solar panels continues to fall
Demand for solar panels has taken off with a huge drop in solar panel prices, down around 90% since 2010. Solar is now the cheapest energy source, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. Nearly 40% of the solar panels in the U.S. are installed in California, mostly in Southern California, where more than half the state lives. Solar energy increasingly helps power our homes and other public and private buildings. Additionally, demand for clean-energy will continue to accelerate. In 2021 the Energy Department said that the U.S. could get nearly half its electricity from solar power by 2050.
Local ports give us easy access to the solar panels from the nations which produce the most solar panels in the world: Nearly 90% (88.8%) of the world’s solar photovoltaic module production comes from China (75%), Vietnam (6.8), Malaysia (3.7), and South Korea (3.3).
5. SONGS is closed
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), one of the state’s major nuclear reactors, which provided electricity to one-fifth of the homes in the area, has been shuttered, and no new nuclear power plants are being planned. In fact, no new plants can be built in California until the federal government figures out where to put the spent fuel. That’s a big incentive to invest in alternative energy.
6. “Green” state government
California’s Legislature is one of the most progressive in the world on environmental issues. SB100, which is also known as the “100% Clean Energy Act of 2018,” implements a goal of powering all retail electricity sold in the Golden State and all state agency electricity needs with renewable and zero-carbon sources by 2045. By 2030 at least 60% of California’s electricity must come from renewables. Sacramento has also said that by 2035 all new cars sold in California must be electric and, come next year, all lawn equipment sold in the state must be electric. These audacious goals will require millions of solar panels and tens of thousands of windmills. The companies that install these should be headquartered in Orange County.
7. Proof of concept
When contemplating a model to shoot for, should we look toward Santa Monica, San Diego, or Santa Barbara? No, the Antelope Valley City of Lancaster (2020 population 172,000), with a Republican city council, is unabashedly pro clean-tech. Lancaster was the first city in the U.S. to require all new homes to have solar and it has streamlined the permitting process. Also, more than 33,000 panels are installed on Lancaster’s schools (resulting in huge savings) and thousands more are on other public buildings. The result is that Lancaster produces more solar power per capita than any other city in the state.
8. Public opinion
There are few issues that OC residents agree about as much as protecting the environment. In a survey we conducted in 2020, 73% of those surveyed agree that man-made climate change was real. Also, between 2010 and 2019, the percentage of Republicans who said climate change was a “serious” problem jumped 34 percentage points (39% to 73%). The comparable figure for Democrats was 25 percent (25%) (73 percent [73%] to 98 percent [98%]) Also, the percentage of Republicans who said “stricter environmental laws” were “worth the cost” increased by five points, from 33 percent (33%) to 38 percent (38%). As of 2022, 40% of California’s nearly 400,000 electric vehicles were registered in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the California Energy Commission. This number of EVs sold in the “car-crazy” Southland is bound to grow as state and federal EV requirements kick in over the next decade.
9. Green universities
The development of an academic culture is a key element fostering the development of a clean-tech industry. The nation’s colleges and universities must respond to this bold challenge. Higher education cannot be bystanders to this great crisis. Fortunately, no issue has animated college students more than concern for the environment. Undergraduate and graduate degrees in sustainable development are now commonplace. Students have taken the lead on environmental issues, for example, by helping to craft their campus’ sustainability policies. High school students from throughout the Southland staged “climate strikes” to press for greater efforts to slow carbon emissions.
10. A new “brand”
Orange County is known nationally for Disneyland, lovely beaches, conservative politics (until recently), and the TV shows, “The OC,”and “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” Here’s an alternative vision: Orange County should commit itself to becoming the world’s sustainability capital. We are well-suited to this challenge.
Fred Smoller and Michael A. Moodian teach at Chapman University. They are the co-founders of the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, which will be held October 5-15 at the OC Fair and Event Center. (OCSD23.co. A version of the argument appeared in the Register in 2014.
Orange County’s entrepreneurial culture, sunny location, access to cheap solar panels, public support for environmental initiations, and “green” universities are some of the reasons OC should commit itself to becoming the world’s sustainability capital.