San Francisco gets smart with green technology

September 11, 2009: 6:00 AM ET

San Francisco is using advanced technology - and the strong arm of government - to turn the city into one of America's greenest.

By David Ewing Duncan

Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco

Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco

On Pier 96 on San Francisco Bay, a dirty, smelly leviathan of a machine roars and vibrates as it organizes 750 tons of refuse each day into neat cubes of plastic, paper, and metal.

It may look crude, but this three-story-high knot of conveyors, computers, bins, and gears is a central part of San Francisco's growing effort to use technology and ingenuity as the most innovative companies do: to cut costs, solve problems, and improve life for customers (or in this case, citizens).

Communities that embrace technology in this way are increasingly branding themselves "smart cities" -- a fancy marketing term describing a place that strives for efficiencies in mobility, construction, energy, and transportation, usually with the help of the latest digital or green technology.

Stockholm uses sensors, software, and computer networks to monitor traffic during peak periods. Shanghai boasts the world's first low-pollution magnetic railway that transports passengers at more than 100 mph. Massachusetts plans to install 300 wind turbines in its towns and cities.

Green tech
San Francisco's major push has been the deployment of technology -- high and low -- to address environmental issues.

For instance, residents of this green-conscious city can hop onto a low-carbon-emission bus tracked by a GPS system; the buses wirelessly feed data to a central computer. Analytical software sends estimated bus arrival times to low-power LED displays found at a handful of solar-powered bus stops. (The city plans eventually to build these solar shelters, designed by local architect Olle Lundberg, throughout the city.)

Riders can check e-mail at bus stops with free Wi-Fi. Even rubbish has gone high tech: San Francisco, with local media design company Haku Wale, built an application for Apple's iPhone that gives users information on the nearest recycling or trash disposal facility.

San Francisco's techno-savvy -- guided in part by neighboring Silicon Valley -- has helped burnish its standing as a smart city. (The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, ranks it as the nation's second-smartest large city, after Seattle.) But attacking urban inefficiencies also requires aggressive lawmaking -- and shrewd political skills to win citizen support.

Under Mayor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco has enacted some of the nation's toughest regulations for recycling: Non-recyclers face fines, while those who recycle get breaks on their trash pickup fees. As a result, San Franciscans now recycle 72% of their trash.

The city also has targeted a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below the levels in 1990 -- stricter than the levels called for in the year 2012 by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol -- by reducing carbon dioxide output in city vehicles, enacting ultra-green building codes, and encouraging less driving.

The city has plans to expand a pilot program with rental service Zipcar, which has made hybrid vehicles available in the city. (For more on Zipcar, see "The Best New Idea in Business".) Newsom also ponied up for a scattering of charging stations for electric vehicles.

The city plans to introduce smart cars, smart scooters, and motorized bicycles in a joint project with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. These electric vehicles can supplement public transit by helping get people from their homes to bus stops and train stations, says Ryan Chin, a co-founder of the smart cities project at MIT's Media Lab.

Private partners
Going green isn't cheap. San Francisco is offsetting some of its expenses by partnering with corporations: Outdoor-advertising giant Clear Channel is covering some of the costs for the solar bus shelters. But the city also dedicates ample tax dollars and city resources to green efforts.

Jared Blumenfeld, director of the city's Department of the Environment, credits residents with giving the city the leeway and funds to experiment. "We are being asked to do these things by our citizens," he says. Still, not all of Newsom's grand plans have panned out. A public-private scheme to outfit the city with Wi-Fi flopped two years ago, partly because of political infighting.

Back at Pier 96, plant manager John Jurinek is greeting a new shift of workers arriving to operate the great recycling machine. It runs 16 hours a day -- the rest of the day is devoted to cleaning and maintaining the mechanical gears and computing equipment that sort and package the recyclables.

Jurinek walks on catwalks high above the machine, checking mechanisms that separate paper from glass and tin from plastic. San Francisco sells those items to help recoup the cost of the program, and Jurinek says a major part of his job is to keep track of the shifting markets for the city's refuse.

Right now he uses the usual tools -- phones, e-mail, the Internet -- to find customers and set prices. But if there's a smarter way to sell trash, there's a good chance San Francisco will find it.

San Francisco's smart initiatives: See how the city has used technology to encourage urban efficiency.

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