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CleanTech OC Sets the Green Agenda

The emerging trade organization connects companies, drives job growth and steps onto the world stage.

By Jerry HicksPublished: April 01, 2012

It’s been a busy day for Taylor Honrath. A startup company that produces energy-efficient lighting needs his help with marketing. A company that manufactures low-energy air conditioning has sought his advice on investor funding. There’s the website to keep up. And not one but two local clean-tech conferences to help plan – plus an afternoon media interview.

Honrath picks up the phone: If the reporter could come at a later hour, he says apologetically, he could squeeze in one more meeting.

It’s not easy spearheading the drive to make Orange County a leader in the clean-tech business. Until recently, Honrath was a one-man band as managing director of nonprofit trade association CleanTech OC. He was bass and fiddle player as well as the group’s primary drum major.

But Honrath has a big-name board of directors behind him, including Bill Campbell, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Brandman University, where CleanTech OC is based in Irvine. A second assistant recently joined Honrath. The duo and their directors have big plans to use their emerging trade association to make Orange County a leader in the fight against America’s dependence on foreign energy.

“We don’t have all the clean-tech businesses in Orange County on board yet,” Honrath says. “But we’re getting there.”

Recent beginnings
The association is just two years old and modeled in part on similar groups: CleanTech San Diego and CleanTech Los Angeles. About one-third of the 150 clean-tech businesses in the county belong to CleanTech OC. Most of those are startup companies run by businesspeople who lack the expertise in marketing and promotion that the nonprofit can provide.

One of the group’s success stories: Greenway Design Group, based in Huntington Beach. CleanTech OC proposed it for the Green Award for Tech America, the largest national technology support group – and it won. The result was higher visibility for the company, which led to new investors and a better stock price.

The trade association has begun helping non-members. Many companies are creating CSOs or chief sustainability officers, experts in their own fields but not so much in environmental issues. Companies from Toshiba to the Irvine Company have sought the nonprofit’s help.

“We mainly provide a forum for them and help them form a sustainability plan,” Honrath says.

With Julia George joining the staff, Honrath’s goal is to bring in more federal grant money to its members.

Those members include most of the major local cities, such as Santa Ana,
Anaheim, Irvine and Huntington Beach. It also has a powerful ally in Brandman University, the adult education affiliate of Chapman University.

First connections
Fred Smoller, a longtime political pundit from Chapman who is now an administrator at Brandman, clearly remembers how the hookup came. Two lawyers from the environmental energy fields, Mike Levin and Gregory Trimarche, started CleanTech OC. Smoller asked them to make a presentation, and the group formed soon after.

“They made their pitch to Gary Brahms [Brandman’s chancellor],” says Smoller. “An hour later, they had free office space right here at Brandman. They were very impressive and had a lot of ideas.”

One of their arguments: The California Energy Commission had awarded $120
million in clean-tech grants that year, but not one dime had gone to anyone in Orange County.

Trimarche, who is an  attorney at the environment law firm of Greenberg Traurig in Irvine, noted that O.C. had all the resources to be a leader in the clean-tech field, but it had not done enough to get attention. The plan was to form a nonprofit in order to help make that happen.

“One of our goals was to just put Orange County on the map in clean technology,” Trimarche says. “Frankly, this county hasn’t done a very good job in that regard,
even though we’ve got a lot of things going for us.”

A clean-tech cooperative
Trimarche, who remains as board chairman, calls CleanTech OC a traditional trade association. When the group first formed, he said, “Our mission is to bring together the public sector, the private sector and academia to foster the growth of clean technology.”

Honrath was soon brought aboard; he’d been working in the mayor’s office in Long Beach. It may be too soon to assess the association’s effectiveness, but whether it’s his youth – Honrath is only a few years out of Long Beach State – or his organizational skills, he has got county leaders, as well as his bosses, taking notice.

“We brought Taylor in to head our program and development,” says Trimarche. “But very quickly he outgrew that job, so we put him in charge. He has sophistication and a political adeptness far beyond his years.”

Honrath’s Brandman office is so jammed with papers, bulletins, pamphlets and worksheets, there’s barely room for him to get around to his desk, which is also covered with work. Julia George recently joined Honrath. A veteran in business development, she was hired as development manager to help with grants and fundraising.

A bigger staff would be nice, says Honrath. And he expects the association’s staff to grow as the number of Orange County businesses involved in clean tech grows.

“It has to happen,” he says. “Clean-tech energy has to be the future. America will reach a point where it just can’t rely on fossil fuels. “

Until a bigger staff comes in, Honrath keeps busy dancing his message all over the county, where one business after another calls for his expertise.

There’s a conference in April, a majorconference in September, and then there’s the Solar Decathlon, put on by the Department of Energy, slated to place at the new Great Park in Irvine in the fall of 2013. The clean-tech trade association was a part of the support team that helped win the rights to the Decathlon, despite numerous other competitive bidders.

The world solar stage
The Decathlon is an international competition that challenges 20 college teams to design and build the best solar-energy house. In operation every two years since 2002, it had been produced on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to huge media attention. Because it has outgrown the mall, the federal government asked U.S. cities to apply to host. By the time of next year’s event, the Great Park will resemble a solar village.

“Frankly, at the time I wrote a letter of support, I didn’t think we had a chance,” says Trimarche. “Other finalists were folks like San Diego and Las Vegas, which had far greater names in putting on big conferences. Winning The Decathlon is huge for the county.”

Although CleanTech OC will only play a supporting role – the Orange County Great Park board and staff will run the event – Trimarche sees it as a chance to bring more visibility to its members with related events planned.

Early grades
What grade should CleanTech OC receive after two years? Supervisor Bill Campbell recently wrote a congratulatory statement that CleanTech OC had done an outstanding job in promoting the industry as “one of the most significant engines for job growth in the county.”

Trimarche is ecstatic about these first two years. “It’s gone far beyond our expectations. We put on a major conference just six months after we formed, and 500 people showed up. Last year, it was up to 700,” he says. “Our monthly board meetings alone improve the industry, because it’s the one time that political, academic and business leaders sit down together to talk about the business of energy. We’re the glue holding that together.”

One leader in the field already impressed is Nick Polsky, a writer for Clean Tech Insights, a major national watchdog publication. After last year’s conference, hosted by CleanTech OC, Polsky reported: “I was impressed with both the turnout and the quality of people I met. Who knew that Southern California had such a vibrant clean-tech industry?”

CleanTech OC has a small conference on April 4 at Chapman University’s Beckman Hall. It will be led by CEOs of clean-tech firms and co-sponsored by OCTANe. Its annual major conference is planned for Irvine on Sept. 18 at the Hyatt Regency.

Last year, the keynote speaker for that conference was Stephen Johnson, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the George W. Bush administration, who’s now on the board of Flexenergy, an Orange County clean-tech firm. Another major speaker was the former president of Shell Oil, John Hoffmeister. Also part of the speaking lineup was James Boyd, head of the California Energy Commission.

Another key player in that event’s success was Huntington Beach mayor Joe Carchio, who said then: “The clean technology industry has reached a tipping point, as more consumers install solar on their rooftops, drive electric vehicles, and do more with less.”

Cities step up
More than a year ago, Huntington Beach signed a solar-power purchase agreement to reduce energy for more than 50 percent of the electricity supply at the civic center, central library and city yard.

Municipal support is one of the key ingredients for the trade group’s success, Honrath says. The city of Irvine will be a key associate as ancillary business events are prepared as a prelude to the Solar Decathlon. Speakers for this year’s Irvine conference have not been announced, but Trimarche says another turnout of 700 is expected.

Smoller of Brandman might not give CleanTech OC as high a grade as Trimarche. But he expects that to change.

“Up until recently, I thought it had done a pretty good job for its first two years,” Smoller says. “But the Decathlon – this brings it to a whole new level. It’s going to raise Orange County’s profile in the industry, and it’s also going to be a huge boost for CleanTech OC.”

Honrath sees Brandman as the perfect partner, helping to fulfill the original goal of combining the tech world with academia. Smoller says it’s a can’t-lose for the university: “We are the 21st-century way of doing education; CleanTech OC is a leader in the 21st-century future in clean energy.”

Industry struggles
Trimarche acknowledges that there has been adverse publicity for the clean-tech industry. Solyndra, a major player in solar paneling based in Fremont, Calif., went bankrupt last September, which drew national criticism
of solar energy and led to a decline in the solar industry.

“It’s an interesting period, and what happened to Solyndra has caused a public perception problem,” Trimarche says. “But other parts of the clean-tech industry are doing well. Some are booming.

“It will be nice if the Decathlon brings [CleanTech OC] added attention,” says Honrath. “But mainly it’s going to be good business for our members. And that’s what means the most to us. We only exist to serve our people.”