ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Before Fred Smoller was a Chapman University professor of political science or an adviser for the solar decathlon, he was an 8-year-old at the 1964 World’s fair in New York — and he was in awe.
Nearly 60 years later, he and colleague Mike Moodian — a lecturer at Chapman’s Attallah College of Educational Studies — are heading up an effort to create a sustainability world’s fair. They hope it would satisfy an appetite for innovation and entertainment while helping transform Orange County into the world leader in sustainability.
The effort begins with the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, a once-every-two-year event scheduled to make its debut in 2023 at the OC Fair and Event Center with teams from 18 colleges and universities.
“We’re creating an upbeat event,” said Smoller, who also serves as president and CEO of OCSD. “We call it ‘sustainability with a smile.’”
Their first project is the competition itself. They selected teams from 18 universities — many from California — and will judge them in 10 categories. Each will receive $100,000 to build a sustainable home of only 1,000 square feet.
Their model for the decathlon comes from more recent examples in 2013 and 2015, when Irvine hosted similar events promoting projects specifically linked with solar.
The scope of this new venture is where Moodian and Smoller get more ambitious. They want Orange County to become the sustainability capital of the world, where existing green companies flourish and new ones put down roots. The county has acquired new identities over the last century — beginning with agricultural hub, to military and defense and then to entertainment. Now, they want to add sustainability.
“The argument here is, why not build those solar power plants? Why not build those windmills here in Orange County?” Smoller said.
But first, they need community engagement. And to get the community involved, they need entertainment.
“I’m trying to put on my Barnum and Bailey hat,” said Smoller. Mike and I are trying to be a little more ‘show-bizzy.’ We’re saying, ‘Come out and have your frankfurter, but it’ll be boiled in water powered by solar.’”
Exactly what entertainment visitors can expect is still in development. Smoller wants electric dirt bikes and monster trucks. State Sen. Dave Minn, D-Irvine, who helped secure $5 million in state money, wants a carousel. They’ve even discussed holding a concert at The Hangar, each band plugging amps and instruments into sources powered by solar panels charged during the day. To succeed, they envision events that can appeal to kindergartners and adults.
First, they need the money. The $5 million is already spoken for, sent off to the university teams and set aside to pay for the space at the Orange County Fair and Event Center.
It’s the decathlon that has gotten the pair started on their vision, providing enough money to attract more, they hope.
The contestants, they believe, are the key to building an event that can thrive 50 years into the future. While many of the teams come from California, Moodian and Smoller wanted a diverse group, not just teams from four-year institutions. There is a team from Orange County Community College along with teams from Arizona, Washington State and Virginia. Plus, three teams will make the expensive journey with their projects from China.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that a lot of the time, these experiences are an access issue, so we’re really trying to make sure everyone can access this competition,” Moodian said.
The projects were largely introduced by advisers who will help the students raise money to transport the finished project, as well as finalizing the size and scope of the teams. Many will number about 20 to 25 competitors per team, and Moodian said they have prioritized inclusion of women and minorities.
Once the homes are complete, they’ll be evaluated by a certified engineer and be held to California safety codes. They’ll be fit enough to live in, Smoller explained.
Like the houses, Smoller and Moodian are building something for which there’s not yet a blueprint.
“We’re building something from scratch,” said Smoller. “And we believe if it’s successful, we’ll have many corporate partners.”