TECH FIRM BRINGS BIG IDEAS TO TOWN
O∞cials beaming over futuristic mix of technology near DIA
Smart city Peña Station Next is a testing ground for Panasonic. Smart street lights, an autonomous shuttle, above, and apartments are in the works for lightrail stop.
Three days ago, brains were installed in 53 city street lights that live near the solitary Peña Station light rail stop just south of Denver International Airport. The first autonomous shuttle is expected to move in next month. By March, a device that measures air quality will join the community, high-density Wi-Fi will be turned on and the first series of apartments will break ground in hopes of attracting new life.
Denver’s futuristic smart city, Peña Station Next, is becoming a reality.
“A lot of cities, a lot of communities are doing pieces of this,” said George Karayannis, vice president of CityNow, the smart-city arm of Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Co. “Nobody is doing all of this.”
Humans don’t live here yet. And there’s still not much to see on the 400 acres bounded by Peña Boulevard and Tower Road, except for the shiny new — and a bit lonely looking — headquarters of Panasonic, which opened in September. The company’s parking lot is covered in solar panels, though it’s not quite ready for cars.
But the undeveloped property close to transit and the airport was a prime reason Panasonic picked Denver. The Japanese technology giant wanted a place to experiment with solar power and renewable energy, autonomous vehicles and other technologies. And it needed a public partner and community support. It found that in Denver, DIA, Xcel Energy, developer LC Fulenwider and many others.
“This is the city’s living lab,” Karayannis said. “They can bring new technology in and try it out at Peña Station, make sure the technology works and the vendors make sense and then create the business model for when and where we scale it in the city. Very few cities have this opportunity to try things before they have to make significant capital decisions. And it’s not so much the capital, but if a city decides to implement the technology, they’re making a 10- to 20-year commitment. You’re locked in. To have this living lab for the city is a phenomenal opportunity.”
Panasonic picked Denver out of 22 finalists for its new headquarters. But beyond the economic impact — a potential $82 million a year, according to government officials — the partnership to build the smartest city in the nation became the prime attraction, said Evan Dreyer, Mayor Michael Hancock’s deputy chief of staff.
“Perhaps the most exciting opportunity for us is to utilize the technology and innovation to address problems with next-generation solutions. That’s where the lab concept comes in,” Dreyer said. “It’s such an amazing opportunity to have a company like Panasonic. Their mission is how do you bring technology to the table and help people’s lives improve.”
Even simple things, such as street lights, are proving to be better when enhanced by technology.
“You get all kinds of cost efficiencies and safety benefits from improving lighting,” Dreyer said.
Moving to LED street lights gives cities a 65 to 70 percent decrease in monthly energy bills for street lights, said Ryan Citron, a research analyst with Navigant Research who tracks smart cities. While the initial investment can be hefty, “most of those programs pay for themselves in three years and from then on, they’re saving 65 to 70 percent a year,” he said. “It’s probably at the top of the list for smart-city deployment.”
The 53 street lights were outfitted Thursday with LED bulbs and internet-of-things networking technology, the brains. The lights can be controlled remotely, though for this experiment, the main control center is inside Panasonic’s building. Panasonic also chose four smart street light vendors to test because “our job is to curate the best of breed,” Karayannis said.
The connected lights instantly notify cities when a light is out. They strive for “deep energy savings” by dimming themselves further when there is excess ambient light, like from a full moon. They can be regularly dimmed from midnight to 4 a.m. when few people are around so the city can test for maximum energy and economic savings.
Smart lights can also help in an emergency. The lights can flash or turn into a way light to guide people to safety.
“If your city had smart street lights, you have that ability to think differently,” Karayannis said. “When you can think differently, now the light pole is an asset. And it’s a revenue-generating asset that can now support smart parking, environmental sensing, community Wi-Fi and public safety in a way that has never been possible before. That’s what is so important about tying this all together. Every city wants to do that. No city is close except for Denver because of the stakeholders. The city of Denver, Xcel, DIA, we’re all working together.”
Peña Station Next is based on Fujisawa, the Japanese smart city built on the site of an old Panasonic factory. Residents rely on solar energy by day, and fuel cells and batteries at night. Few people own cars because public transit and shared vehicles are available. Cameras are everywhere and recognize who lives in town — and who doesn’t.
Stacie Gilmore, Denver’s District 11 councilwoman who represents the neighborhood, said she has visited Fujisawa and felt the technology was eye-opening, though not all would translate well in America.
“Cameras on street lights? There’s a certain amount of privacy that we all want to feel like we have,” Gilmore said. “But the technology (lets parents allow) a child go to a playground and play and they can see them (remotely). We’ll have to be considerate of what people like and don’t like and how to move forward.”
Peña Station Next will also have technology Fujisawa doesn’t. An environmental sensor developed by Argonne National Laboratory arrives in the next month or so. Dubbed “the Fitbit for cities,” this device monitors air particles, solar cloud coverage, noise, temperature and humidity. Also, it can count cars and people to help with parking and traffic flow.
And where car sharing is the main vehicle of choice in Fujisawa, Peña Station Next will get its first driverless shuttle in January. Developed by EasyMile in France, the electric EZ10 shuttle seats about a dozen, runs at speeds up to 15 mph and is completely autonomous. The vehicle will shuttle people to and from the transit station and Panasonic. EasyMile also plans to open its North American headquarters inside Panasonic’s facility.
Funding for the project comes from various public and private sources. The smart electricity grid — providing Panasonic’s building with solar energy in the day, battery power at night — is part of an Xcel Energy experiment. Panasonic is paying for the batteries. Developer L.C. Fulenwider is overseeing the master plan and working to get hotels, retailers and commercial and residential development to the project.
Ferd Belz, Fulenwider’s senior vice president, said Denver-based multifamily developer MGL Partners will begin construction of a 219-unit apartment project after the first of the year. Rents for oneto three-bedroom apartments (averaging 725 to 1,150 square feet) are expected to be “mid- to low-price” for the area, Karayannis said.
The apartments, located east of Panasonic, should be close to move-in ready by October, when the U.S. Department of Energy holds its Solar Decathlon competition and festival on the property. Panasonic is helping with that event too.
“Panasonic is not only a technology partner, we are an investor,” Karayannis last week told potential partners who had come to hear how this former ranch land will be transformed into a festival space by October and then morph into a carbon-neutral city with retail, restaurants, housing and limited parking. “This is 400 of the smartest acres in the country. That’s a very high bar. We know how high it is and we know how to clear it.”
An employee from Guarantee Electric installs energy-efficient LED bulbs and smart-networking technology in one of 53 street lights at Peña Station Next, a smart city being developed near DIA. Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Dubbed the “Fitbit for cities,” the Array of Things monitors an area’s health. The beehive-looking device, developed by Argonne National Laboratory, collects realtime data on environment, infrastructure and activity.
This artist’s rendering captures Peña Station Next, a planned community being developed near Denver International Airport and anchored by the new Panasonic campus.