From EV fleets to LED streetlights, San Diego is America’s premier smart city

Your city is dumb. The potholed streets, coin-operated parking meters, and drafty brick buildings many of us interact with every day haven’t changed much in a century. But it’s finally happeningFrom Oslo to San Diego, cities across the globe are installing technology to gather data in the hopes of saving money, becoming cleaner, reducing traffic, and improving urban life. In Digital Trends’ Smart Cities series, we’ll examine how smart cities deal with everything from energy management, to disaster preparedness, to public safety, and what it all means for you.

You might think of San Diego as just a laid-back beach town. But it’s a town full of marvelous, counter-intuitive trends and odd dichotomies too. It’s the second-largest metropolitan area in California, yet its citizens and government think of it as a “city of villages.” It’s the town where surfing was born, yet the city is home to as many advanced technology startups as its counterpart in Silicon Valley. It’s largely a conservative place, yet one that is more committed to a clean environment and the advancement of science than just about anywhere else in the country. It’s a city in the crosshairs of the anti-immigration movement, yet one from which you can literally walk across a bridge to Tijuana, Mexico.

In short, San Diego is a weird, wonderful place — and it’s quickly becoming a global leader in the development and deployment of Smart City technology. In San Diego’s case, this means way more than urban development; this is re-writing the city’s DNA.

Smart Cities San Diego is a highly ambitious, multi-year collaboration that combines the resources of the City of San Diego, San Diego Gas & Electric, General Electric, the University of California San Diego, and a major nonprofit partner, Cleantech San Diego — a trade association whose mission is to advance these technologies. Led by these visionary organizations, Smart Cities San Diego brings expertise and ideas from government, business, education, and the nonprofit community in a public-private partnership that rivals the advances of just about any other community in the world.

And it’s fundamentally changing the nature of what it means to live there.

A Complex History

It all began in the 90s, in the heart of a financial crisis.

“We realized we needed to go beyond just being more efficient,” explained David Graham, the Deputy Chief Operating Officer of the City of San Diego, on whose shoulders much of the success of the Smart City initiatives rest. “We really started to look practically at ways to use data and technology to improve city services and save money.”

In addition to a burst of new technologies, the State of California was also heavily invested in the climate improvement goals supported by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Every city in the United States is in the early stages of becoming smart cities.”

“We were able to unite the business community, academia, the government, and our utilities,” said Graham of those heady early days. “That created the people platform for our smart city efforts. We began with ideas around electric vehicles, and then you begin to layer. When you look at it from the big picture, if the city is the bloodstream of this organic being, then the utility is like the nervous system. Once we understood that concept, we could start thinking how we could better connect, coordinate and understand what is going on around our city.”

Another enormously important factor in the success of the smart city initiatives in San Diego is the presence of a full-time nonprofit advocate for the people, companies and organizations that support the development and deployment of clean technologies and renewable energy. Cleantech San Diego was founded a decade ago as a member-based trade association that helps foster partnerships and encourage investment in smart city technologies.

“We provide what I like to call a safe space for the public sector and the private sector to come together to talk about what the city needs to do,” Cleantech President and CEO Jason Alexander told Digital Trends. “We also support the deployment of pilot projects so our members can ensure that their ideas work in the real world.”

San Diego Goes Electric

San Diego started very early with electric vehicles (EV). To get ahead of the curve, the city facilitated the expansion of a public electric vehicle infrastructure that ensures safe, reliable, and efficient charging almost anywhere in the San Diego power grid. That was a major investment and a fundamental redesign to one of the city’s most important infrastructures. Today, 32 percent of San Diego’s electricity is renewable, and there is no coal in San Diego Gas & Electric’s energy portfolio.

More recently, San Diego Gas & Electric along with Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California have raised more than $1 billion to try to electrify the entire state’s transportation sector. They can certainly point to San Diego as an example of success. The region is home to more than 14,000 EV drivers, nearly 1,000 charging stations, and car2go’s fleet of 400 electric vehicles. And San Diego plans to overclock its EV program by installing up to 90,000 charging stations at single-family homes, putting in up to 45 charging spots for ground support equipment at San Diego International Airport, and installing charging stations at locations used by taxis, shuttles and rideshare vehicles.

San Diego’s latest triumph also involves electricity, and started as a pilot project. With involvement from Cleantech San Diego and other constituents, the city installed 3,000 LED street lights with wireless sensors and adaptive controls downtown. Not only did the lights improve energy efficiency, the extra effort to add wireless sensors has added a whole new dimension of data to the city’s arsenal — and simultaneously launched the most significant IoT civic project to date.

“With the streetlights, we realized that we didn’t know when they were on or off or how much energy was being used,” Graham remembered. “Utilizing technology to better control them and reduce our energy footprint was attractive in the first place. By moving forward with the adaptively controlled streetlight network, we figured out exactly how much energy we could save. But then our vendor, GE, told us they could communicate a lot more information than just whether a light is on or off. We could gather information regarding transport, parking, traffic and more.”

Having achieved success with the pilot program, San Diego has moved forward with a $30 million upgrade to 75,000 street lights, saving 30 million kilowatt hours annually, eliminating 13,000 tons of carbon dioxide, and generating $30 million in economic development. The city is also using federal community block grants to ensure underserved neighborhoods also have these wirelessly networked street lights, not just downtown or the Gaslight Quarter.

“We’re big on human-powered design. If you forget about the people, you’ve already failed at being a smart city.”

“A big part of being a smart city is being an inclusive city,” said Graham. He recalled talking to one family at an opening party who wondered if they could use the data to find the safest route to walk to school. In fact, the data collected by the streetlight network can be used for all manner of applications, and will be completely transparent to access. A new app designed to find parking in San Diego should be unveiled later this year.

“That’s the question: how can we provide more data not only for our decision makers but also push that information out to software developers and other organizations that can make use of it?” Graham explained. “We’re big on human-powered design. If you forget about the people, you’ve already failed at being a smart city.”

In fact, the program’s first challenge started with people. Having eyes on where people parked, Graham assumed parking violations would go up. But when he talked to the enforcement teams, he discovered that parking enforcement was based on a decades-old fixed route that didn’t even consider the new data.

“If you don’t adapt the process to the technology, the technology becomes extremely inefficient,” Graham said.

san diego smart city technology solar panel installation

Next Stop, Solar City

Consider this: San Diego is the #1 place in the nation for rooftop solar. It’s another place where the Smart City constituents said this is good, but it could be better. Let’s make it better.

“We knew we had a ton of solar permits coming through the city’s application process, and the process was efficient,” Graham remembered. “Solar is a fairly standard technology where the installers know what they’re doing. So we blew up the process. We created a self-certification process for companies, trained them on what the process would be like, and what needed to happen.”

The result of “blowing up the process?” San Diego now processes more solar permits than any other type of permit that the city issues, with zero incidents or problems.

“The private sector’s ability to understand the city’s process for implementing solutions can be slow,” said Cleantech’s Anderson. “It’s slow because of procurement and permitting processes that private sector companies aren’t used to dealing with. People like David Graham want to solve these issues by streamlining the process so that they’re available when the technology is current and not decades later when the tech is out of date.”

America’s Smartest City?

Electricity is important, but the San Diego Smart City initiatives are looking at all manner of upgrades, from clean building techniques to renewable energy to hackathons. Graham mentions in passing that the city is already overhauling its drinking water system.

“Not to be too gross, but we’re turning sewage into pure, clean drinking water,” Graham laughs. “It will eventually be 30 percent sourced from renewable sources. Another thing we did was to invite in the many breweries in the area and let our citizens drink beer made from pure water. Demystifying these things and being very open about that is our future. It’s about citizen engagement at the human level, but also about citizen engagement at the technical level.”

Other smart city-related projects include the smart building initiatives at the Port of San Diego, the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan and the EcoLuxury Apartments in Scripps Ranch — the first all-solar apartment complex in San Diego and one of the first multifamily complexes in the United States to offer Net Zero living to all its residents.

“We invited in the many breweries in the area and let our citizens drink beer made from pure water.”

The City of San Diego also announced in 2017 that San Diego will become a “2030 District,” an urban area where the private sector and local building industry leaders commit to sustainability and economic growth. The goal is to achieve a 50 percent reduction in energy, water, and transportation emissions in the district by 2030.

“When it comes to smart cities, the only real rule is ‘You do you,’” Graham said. “The streetlight program might not be the same for everyone. Not everyone will be able to benefit from solar as much as San Diego, but we don’t have the same amount of wind energy as West Texas. You have to find out what works specifically for you. Look to the place where your money is being spent today, and think about how that investment can be leveraged to replace light with light years ahead.”

There are challenges here in San Diego, but they’re solvable ones. Legacy infrastructure that can support advanced wiring, fiber, and other advances is one. Obstacles to having these new data systems communicate with each other is another. There are also questions to come: How does San Diego react to autonomous (self-driving) cars? What does parking look like in an ever-evolving city? How could traffic data be combined with transactional data to identify the ideal spot for a food truck?

“We always say that San Diego is small enough to get things done but big enough to make a difference,” Anderson said. “If we can be the proving ground for the development and deployment of smart city technology here in San Diego, our hope is that these technologies make their way around the world.”