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Innovation

How 4 US Cities Continue to Invest in Clean Energy and Innovation

  • Honolulu, San Antonio, Boston, and Raleigh-Durham have been investing in residents and the planet.
  • For example, Honolulu’s efforts are focused on public transit, clean energy, and waste management.
  • Cities like San Antonio and Raleigh have digital inclusion and expanding jobs at the forefront.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

Last summer, the Honolulu City Council approved the city’s first-ever Climate Action Plan, a detailed strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next five years and reach carbon neutrality by 2045. The plan had been years in the making and involved. community meetings, working groups with stakeholders including local utility companies and other partners, and resident engagement.

headshot of Matthew Gonser

Matthew Gonser.

Courtesy of Matthew Gonser


“There was a lot of work already underway, a lot of things that were already city priorities,” Matthew Gonser, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer, who leads the city’s sustainability efforts, told Insider. “But it’s exciting having this formalized and articulated in terms of the direct relationship and connection to both efficiency opportunities, cost-saving opportunities, and then driving down emissions over time.”

Honolulu’s Resilience Office, which is in charge of tracking climate change’s impacts on the island of Oahu and ensuring the city and its residents are prepared, is focusing on transportation, building energy use, and waste management – areas that contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions, he said. The office’s sustainability plan includes electrifying ground transportation, increasing walking and biking paths and accessibility, expanding energy efficiency and renewable energy, and decreasing solid waste amounts.

Honolulu is one of four cities that Insider featured in its “Advancing Cities” series last year. The city is not alone in making progress in its efforts to become more resilient. Here’s a look at how the Hawaiian capital, along with San Antonio, Boston, and Raleigh-Durham, are also driving innovation and looking to the future.

Honolulu, Hawaii, is homing in on water use

In addition to public transit, clean energy, and waste management, water efficiency is another key part of Honolulu’s resiliency and sustainability efforts, which Gonser said is more important than ever. The Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility recently leaked petroleum and contaminated the water supply in Oahu. To make sure the island does not run out of clean water, the water utility requested that residents reduce their water usage by 10%.

“This could be an issue for a long time, but it really drives home the point that efficiency across energy and water brings security and savings, and really a respect for the resources,” he added. Gonser says the issue has also highlighted the need for better processes to track water and energy use, which is something his office is working on.

The resilience office also introduced Bill 22 at the city council to establish better benchmarking and reporting requirements for buildings on their water and energy use.

San Antonio, Texas, is committed to digital equity and smart city technology

The skyline of San Antonio at night

San Antonio, Texas.

Sean Pavone / Shutterstock


headshot of Candelaria Mendoza

Candelaria Mendoza.

Courtesy of Candelaria Mendoza


Digital inclusion has been a priority for San Antonio’s Office of Innovation since a city survey in 2019 revealed many residents lacked


broadband

connectivity, digital literacy, and access to devices. Last year, the city hired Candelaria Mendoza as its digital inclusion administrator to continue the commitment.

SA Digital Connects, a public-private-community partnership, was established to create a roadmap to expand connectivity in San Antonio and the greater Bexar County and implement the city’s Digital Equity Plan.

“Digital access is a foundational component that creates a domino effect to education to workforce development to economic development,” Mendoza told Insider.

San Antonio is also developing a smart city plan in collaboration with residents and the city’s research and development team, which will be released by the end of the year.

“We’re having stakeholder conversations to identify key priorities for how we can leverage data, technology, and open innovation to improve public services,” smart city administrator Emily Royall told Insider.

This month, the Texas Smart Cities Summit will bring stakeholders together to discuss topics like infrastructure, cybersecurity, digital services, and public participation. Royall said the city also hosts SmartSA Sandbox, outdoor, festival-style events, where the public can engage with smart technology. Around 600 people attended the last event in October, Royall added.

San Antonio’s R&D League, which uses data and research to discover new ideas and create policies, has been working to secure grants and conducting experiments to help the city plan for the next decade, Kate Kinnison, R&D administrator, told Insider. The goal is for the R&D League to distribute grants to “lay a foundation for all the transformative work that needs to happen in San Antonio,” she said.

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, is focusing on workforce and economic development

Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh, North Carolina.

Kevin Ruck / Shutterstock


Over the past year, the city of Raleigh transitioned its economic development office from the city to a partnership between the city, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and Wake County Economic Development.

headshot of Kyle Touchstone

Kyle Touchstone.

Courtesy of Kyle Touchstone


In September, Kyle Touchstone was hired as director of Raleigh Economic Development and has been focused on recruiting companies to the Research Triangle area and ensuring a talented workforce is in place to staff these businesses.

Biotech firm Amgen announced plans to build a new plant set to open in 2025 in the area. Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies is also building a $ 2 billion facility that will bring 700 jobs, and Apple is investing in a $ 1 billion campus in North Carolina.

To ensure that there’s enough tech talent to fill these jobs, Touchstone told Insider that local universities are expanding their engineering and computer science programs.

“We’re a community that was built on innovation,” he said. “It’s at our core, and we’ll continue to see innovation play a major role in our future.”

In nearby Durham, city officials are planning to open applications for the Innovate Durham program, which turns the city into a test lab for new ideas, in mid-April. The program was put on hold in 2020 and pared down in 2021 because of the pandemic.

“This year, we’re trying to make sure that the companies are paired well to find real solutions that could turn into sustainable solutions that continue after the cohort ends,” Mary Grace Stoneking, the International City / County Management Association (ICMA) local government management fellow for the city, told Insider.

headshot of Andrew Holland

Andrew Holland.

Courtesy of Andrew Holland


The city is also being intentional about engaging minority- and women-owned businesses and startups, Andrew Holland, Durham’s assistant director for strategy and performance, told Insider.

Durham is continuing to embrace data to make citywide decision-making processes more equitable, Stoneking said. Its budget equity tool and scoring matrix rank budget requests from city departments based on equity, including which areas of the city they’re focused on and which populations will be affected. This has also involved training other city departments in how to use data and how to collect data around racial equity, she added.

Residents are also engaged in capital improvement projects (CIP) to ensure equity. Holland said residents sit on the CIP committee with city staff and help score project requests, and residents receive a stipend for their time.

Boston, Massachusetts, is examining ways to make its energy grids more efficient and adapt to smart technology

Boston skyline in Massachusetts

Boston, Massachusetts.

Tomasz Szulczewski / Getty Images


The Boston Smart Utilities Program outfitted Boston’s streetlights with smart sensors, WiFi, and cameras to learn more about traffic and pollution. Now, the city is conducting a lighting audit to see where the technology can be expanded.

headshot of Travis Anderson

Travis Anderson.

Courtesy of Travis Anderson


As part of deploying smart city technology, the city is examining the long-term maintenance and ownership of the technology and the data it produces, Travis Anderson, senior infrastructure and energy planner at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, told Insider.

“What department will be responsible for it? How is the data collected?” he said. “We want to ensure privacy, of course.”

Boston is also studying ways to decarbonize district energy microgrids, which are energy systems that provide thermal and electrical energy for buildings onsite. But some of that energy, even though it’s efficient, is cogenerated with fossil fuels.

Anderson said they’s planning to wrap up the study this summer and release a report, which will guide the city’s project teams in their district energy analyzes and look at new energy technology.

“Often you think of infrastructure as this static solution, but we’re looking at it in a way in which we can adapt it and have it effectively smart for new technology that emerges down the line,” he said.

Boston is looking at increasing resilience overall, too. Working with the city’s energy office, Anderson said they need to ensure that energy grids can handle the “smart tech integration across the city.”

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