SMART CITY IN THE WORKS NEAR DIA
Acommunity development next to the new Panasonic campus takes utilities and services to the next, high-tech level.
There is a town 31 miles west of Tokyo where street lights turn on as people walk past at night.
Rooftop solar panels power the hundred-plus homes during the day, while fuel cells and batteries take over in the evenings at this year-old community on the site of a former Panasonic factory.
Public transportation is in walking distance, although electric cars and bicycles are available to borrow.
And now, this smart-city experiment known as the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is coming to Denver from Japan.
Panasonic, with its arsenal of cool technology, is the anchor in what aims to be this hemisphere’s Fujisawa. The 400-acre Peña Station NEXT southwest of Denver International Airport is a collaboration between public and private forces. Expect renewable energy, sustainable construction, wireless Internet, a health center, and shops and restaurants intermingled with community centers, playgrounds, bike paths and one’s work.
But most important to many, this new community will be built within steps of the new Peña Boulevard rail station, which opens April 22, completing the link between downtown and the airport.
“As we look to hire lots of employees, my dream is that most of my employees will be living within walking distance. For those who do live somewhere else, I want them to be on the train,” said Jim Doyle, president of Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, which is moving its headquarters to Denver this summer. “We really, really want this to be a true transit-oriented development. And if everyone is getting in a car and driving, that’s a huge failure.”
Smart cities of yesterday were known for being research and development hubs, thanks to local universities. Today, smart cities use data to help the whole community live healthier— and with a nod to the environment.
It helps that technology is more accessible and affordable.
TomMurphy, Pittsburgh’s mayor in the 1990s and now a senior resident fellowat theUrban Land Institute, remembers police pulling out a deck of printed photos to identify criminals. Advances in tools like facial recognition has changed that.
“Technology has made police much smarter, “Murphy said. “I can remember police would walk into amajor drug deal and people would run away before police could get to them. Adding facial recognition, you can match (face details) fast.”
Data collection can also improve city services for simple things, like garbage collection. Murphy said Pittsburgh saved money by routing drivers more efficiently through more neighborhoods. The result was that trucks arrived at the dump full instead of half empty.
But to meet environmental goals, there needs to be a change in mind-set, said Michael D. Tavel, a senior instructor in environmental design at the University of Colorado.
“The most important thing in sustainability really comes down to our environmental impact per person, which are lowest in the densest cities,” Tavel said.
Dense areas, like New York City, have more people taking public transit and relying less on cars, which are some of the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions. According to a World Bank report from2011, the denser a city’s population, the less green house gas is emitted per capita. Denver, for example, had 23.7 tons of CO2 emissions per person, while New York City was at 8.7.
Without that mind-set change, efforts to live smarter seem wasted. Tavel pointed to Stapleton, the northeast Denver neighborhood built on the site of a former airport. The focus was on sustainability, parks and pedestrians.
“But it ended up only being a minor modification and improvement over the suburbs in terms of environmental impact because pretty much everyone in Stapleton drives just as much as they do in any other suburb,” said Tavel, who is working on a solar-powered housing development in Arvada.
Cities could also focus on their urban core rather than expanding to the outlying areas where public transportation is less prevalent. But residents tend to balk at squeezing more people into their neighborhood, he said.
“It's politically difficult to increase the density of our cities,” Tavel said. “I live in Lower Highland andwork next door to where I live. People inmy neighborhood are up in arms about growth. Whenever we make our cities more dense, people get outraged.”
Peña Station NEXT is different. It’s starting with public transportation before the first house is built. Construction on the first multifamily housing project is expected to start this summer. And the rest of the project intends to make the environment a priority, said Cal Fulenwider, president of developer L.C. Fulenwider.
“In this day and age with global warning, etc., etc., why wouldn’t we do everything we can to create an environment that is clean, high-tech and financially viable,” Fulenwider said. “When Panasonic entered the picture, all of those pieces fell into place.”
Panasonic has taken the lead in defining what makes a city smart. And in Colorado, far from Fujisawa and a population that is four times more dense than Denver, Panasonic isn’t using the same format.
Camera monitors with accurate facial recognition? With privacy concerns, developers expect something less obtrusive.
Shared cars available to borrow? Shuttles are more likely, plus there will be parking garages and lots.
Energy-saving street lights that light up only when people walk by? Too many liability issues here, Doyle said. However, dimming the street lights may be a possibility.
“As Panasonic, we knew we wanted to leverage everything over there. But knowing the culture and nuance, we made the decision to have a separate implementation and style because our cultures are different,” he said. “The key message is that we’re spending a lot of time and effort to customize this to the uniqueness and character of Denver rather than taking Fujisawa and going plunk.”
Panasonic is starting with its own footprint. Its 112,000-square- foot building, which should be ready tomove into this summer, is a four-minute walk to the rail station. The building will be full of solar panels to provide power for more than 300 employees.
The company reached out to Xcel Energy to build a smart grid to store excess solar power in batteries for backup use. The grid, expected to be completed by October, still needs to get approval from the state Public Utilities Commission on Feb. 3.
Chad Nickell, Xcel’s manager of system planning and strategy, said that the smart grid is solely for Panasonic’s use and it’s really more of a demonstration to see what works and how Xcel will implement batteries in the future to all residents. X ce la ls os eeks approval to test battery storage in a Stapleton neighborhood where rooftop solar systems are common.
“One of the things we’re really trying to learn with this project is that rather than let people connect batteries to our system and us learning on the fly, the key learning is how do we create interconnection rules for batteries and create a benefit” for everyone, Nickell said. “This is not necessarily opening the door for Xcel to become a provider of batteries.”
Panasonic will provide funding for the battery. Both projects will cost ratepayers $10 million, according to Xcel.
While Panasonic appears to be the company weaving all the smart technologies together to create a cohesive plan, the company knows it can’t do this alone. It credits Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Fulenwider and others for getting the project this far along.
“At the end of the day, we’re a commercial entity and I would love for the mayor of XYZ city to call Mayor Hancock and say, ‘We’re thinking of doing this with Panasonic. Are they reasonable? Are they fair?’ ” Doyle said. “I want to get a good evaluation.”
An artist rendering of Peña Station NEXT, a planned community being developed near DIA. Provided by Peña Station NEXT