A grassroots neighborhood coalition led by the creator of ‘MacGyver’ is channeling that problem-solving character to try and stop a global renewable energy company.

AES Corp., a global renewable energy company based in Arlington, Virginia, has picked a nearly 700-acre area on privately owned land for its utility-scale solar and storage development. Dubbed Rancho Viejo Solar, it would generate nearly 100 megawatts of solar power alongside about 50 megawatts worth of lithium-ion battery energy storage, according to AES’ website.

Projects of that size typically cost upwards of $100 million, although AES hasn’t publicly disclosed Rancho Viejo Solar’s anticipated price tag. The company has said, however, that the project could generate about $7 million in tax revenue for Santa Fe County over its life and create more than 200 jobs during peak construction, providing energy to the Public Service Co. of New Mexico under a 20-year power purchase agreement.

Some residents of Eldorado and the nearby Rancho San Marcos and Rancho Viejo neighborhoods, which sit in close proximity to the proposed project site, don’t believe those expected benefits outweigh the potential costs.

The community members see Rancho Viejo Solar as a massive risk. Particularly, the residents — who formed a group opposing the project called the Clean Energy Coalition for Santa Fe County — are concerned about the potential fire hazard the lithium-ion battery storage system presents.

Highly flammable vegetation and limited nearby emergency services — and the partially exposed gas line — all present a uniquely dangerous situation for Rancho San Marcos, Eldorado and others nearby the site, the Coalition argues.

AES, for its part, has said fires at its energy storage facilities are “rare occurrences and remain isolated” because of updated design codes and safety standards. Still, the Coalition wants the company’s Rancho Viejo project blocked.

But it also wants to come up with an alternative.

What sort of alternative? Something a bit smaller, a community-level project that would rely on in-state companies, localized solar power and the ingenuity of Coalition members to concoct a clean energy solution — not too dissimilar from something MacGyver himself might create.

And with the help of Zlotoff, the man behind the creation of the resourceful, problem-solving character, the grassroots group might just have the inventiveness to power up its own solution…

Zlotoff and the members of the Clean Energy Coalition see their campaign against AES Corp.’s large solar and battery storage project as their own endurance match. They say Rancho Viejo Solar represents a sort of existential threat because of what they allege is the potential for thermal runaway in the battery system and wildfires that could ensue.

He and [Dayna] Matlin first became involved with the Coalition after Camilla Brom, a resident of the Rancho San Marcos neighborhood right next to the proposed project site and one of the earliest organizers against the project, held a meeting in Eldorado to involve folks in that community.

Brom was looking for people willing to help raise awareness about AES’ project and its potential hazards in Eldorado. Zlotoff and Matlin obliged.

Zlotoff is a storyteller, after all.

“I figured, at the end of the day, this was a narrative battle,” he said.

“They have their story,” Zlotoff added, speaking about AES. “We’re going to have our story.”

Spreading any meaningful story to a wider audience requires extensive coordination — experience Zlotoff has after helping lead large-scale productions and managing hundreds of people on sprawling television sets.

In short, the grassroots movement needed a vocal, enigmatic leader. That’s what Zlotoff, in some ways, offered.

“I’ve been watching him over the last 10 years speaking in front of large groups of people,” Matlin said. “He has a way of inspiring people.”

So, Zlotoff and Matlin took up the mantle in Eldorado and began their quest to spread the word about AES and its proposed project.

One strategy the couple came up with was rather simple — distribute flyers with a bunch of background information and ways to get involved directly to Eldorado residents.

But, as it turns out, it’s illegal to put flyers directly in peoples’ mailboxes in Eldorado. It’s also illegal, Zlotoff said, to tape flyers to peoples’ mailboxes.

You can, however, tape things to the post the mailbox is on. “That’s not illegal.”

“So, that’s what we did,” Zlotoff said. “We MacGyvered it. We just figured it out.”

It’s not too hard to paint an analogy between MacGyver — the resourceful adventurer relying on his wits and things at hand to solve problems and get out of sticky situations — and the work of the Coalition, pulling together a broad swath of local Santa Feans to stop a global energy firm’s project and contrive their own solution.

It’s little wonder, then, that Zlotoff would get involved.

“I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very fortunate. The world has been very good to me,” he said. “I feel an obligation to give back.”

Giving back doesn’t only come through his work with the Coalition. Zlotoff, who owns all the rights to “MacGyver” besides those related to the original television show and the 2016 reboot, has furthered the character, writing “The MacGyver Secret” and turning MacGyver into a musical that had its world premiere in early 2022.

>Lee Zlotoff, creator of MacGyver, in his Eldorado home outside of Santa Fe. Zlotoff published the book “The MacGyver Secret” in 2016. A MacGyver musical also made its debut in 2022.

People, he said, “really identified with this character.” “I know we have more resources inside of us than we know, and there are resources around us that we may not fully appreciate and be aware of,” Zlotoff said. “Like MacGyver, all of us, if we learn how to tap into those inner resources and appreciate the outer resources, more often than not there’s a way to solve the problem you’re struggling with.” It just so happens AES’ plans to build the energy project about 1 mile from Zlotoff and Matlin’s home, and the Coalition’s work opposing it, presents an opportunity for Zlotoff to, in a way, embody the character he created. “How could I not do it?”
Lee Zlotoff and Dayna Matlin in their backyard in Eldorado near AES’ proposed Rancho Viejo Solar Project. A sign outside of the El Dorado Fire & Rescue station announces the day’s wildfire risk.

Article Excerpts from The Business Journal: “The MacGyver Approach” by Jacob Maranda, Apr 4, 2024. Read the full article at