Smart City Case Study: How San Diego Uses Technology to Enhance Sustainability

San Diego is one of the world’s top smart cities. Here are five environmental initiatives that make San Diego an exemplar of sustainability in the U.S.

April 18, 2024

San Diego, California has long been recognized as one of the world’s top smart cities for its various environmental and urban planning initiatives, which help the city to conserve energy, augment economic growth, and improve quality of life for San Diego citizens. Let’s review some of San Diego’s sustainability programs to discover what makes it a successful smart city. 

How San Diego Became a Smart City

In the early 2000s, San Diego found itself in a dire financial crisis. To rectify this dilemma, city officials knew they needed to find ways to save money, so they turned to energy-saving initiatives. David Graham, the Deputy Chief Operating Officer of San Diego, explained, “We realized we needed to go beyond just being more efficient…we really started to look practically at ways to use data and technology to improve city services and save money.” 

In 2011, San Diego made a substantial stride towards this goal by signing onto the Smart City San Diego collaborative — a partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric, General Electric (GE), Cleantech San Diego, and the University of California, San Diego. Together, these organizations hoped to deploy sustainability technology to improve the local economy, protect the environment, and enhance the quality of life for those who live and work in San Diego. 

During the early stages of the Smart City San Diego partnership, Graham explained, “We were able to unite the business community, academia, the government, and our utilities. That created the people platform for our smart city efforts… 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.”

Today, San Diego’s smart city initiatives have expanded to include public transportation programs, local research projects, and community connectivity measures, all of which maintain the core value of environmental sustainability (Moore, 2017). 

San Diego’s Environmental Initiatives 

Through the Smart City San Diego collaborative, the city implemented a host of sustainability projects with the collective aim of reducing energy usage, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, and fostering economic growth. Here are five of San Diego’s environmental programs:

  • Smart Buildings in the Port of San Diego

The Port of San Diego is a district comprising five cities — Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City, and San Diego. In 2014, the Port of San Diego became the initial demonstration site for a series of smart building projects led by Cleantech San Diego. Cleantech San Diego partnered with technology providers to implement Internet of Things (IoT), including sensors programmed to gather and organize energy usage data in buildings located in the district. Using this data, building operators can assess how energy is used within their facilities, helping them identify and address issues more quickly. 

In addition to diminishing greenhouse gas emissions, this initiative aims to reduce energy usage and cost. Eventually, Cleantech San Diego and the rest of the Smart City San Diego collaborative plan to expand this project to other regions around the globe (Bresnahan, 2014a). 

  • Solar-Powered Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

To reduce its environmental footprint, San Diego strives to empower citizens to use electric vehicles (EV) through the Solar-to-EV project, organized by Smart City San Diego. As part of the initiative, five solar-powered EV charging stations were built at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. These charging stations are an excellent source of renewable energy as they collect and store energy from the sun to charge plug-in EVs. On average, these stations charge 119 cars every month. In a year, the project reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 21 cars off the road. 

Initiated in 2012, this project has proven consumers’ interest in EVs, as San Diego now has one of the highest levels of EV drivers per capita in the entire country. The president of Cleantech San Diego, Jason Anderson said, “Our goal with pilot projects like this one is to deploy new clean technologies, see how people use and respond to them, and replicate successful case studies across the region and the world. The popularity of the Solar-to-EV charging stations at the Zoo has proven San Diego’s leadership in the EV market and supports a greater mission of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while stimulating the clean transportation economy,” (Bresnahan, 2014b). 

  • Internet of Things Applied to Streetlights

San Diego also implemented the IoT by equipping its streetlights with data-gathering sensors through a partnership with GE. Replacing the city’s sodium vapor streetlights with new LED fixtures was initially suggested as a money-saving endeavor. As a clean light source, LED fixtures use 60 percent less energy than traditional streetlights, not to mention they have prolonged lifespans that lead to reduced maintenance costs. In total, over 35,000 LED lights were installed, resulting in approximately $2.2 million in yearly savings. 

However, because LED bulbs degrade over time rather than burning out, it is more difficult to tell when they aren’t working, compared to traditional bulbs. Thus, San Diego needed a way to monitor their streetlights to know when maintenance was required. The solution was GE’s LightGrid Outdoor Wireless Control System, which links streetlights via a wireless network. Not only does this system allow the city to monitor its streetlights, but it also enables it to control the streetlights remotely. 

Graham explained, “Now we know exactly how much energy a streetlight is using. We know if it’s out. We can brighten or dim it, depending on environmental factors.” This collaboration made San Diego the first city to execute GE’s intelligent lighting system (Watson, 2017). 

  • MetroLab Research Partnership 

MetroLab is a nonprofit organization that fosters relationships between local governments and universities to help cities discover innovative solutions to urban challenges. The City of San Diego and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) partnered through the MetroLab network to develop technology that will improve city services. One of their joint projects is the High-Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN), which has been applied to the monitoring of San Diego County wildfires. Specifically, HPWREN has allowed backcountry fire stations located in remote areas to connect through the Internet, creating a better system of communication for the county’s fire authority. 

Jerald Coleman, technology manager at the San Diego County Fire Authority, explained how HPWREN impacts the fire authority’s operations, saying, “We typically would get a 911 call before we can even see the puff of smoke on one of the cameras, but once the fire is going, monitoring is a huge thing for us. The dispatch center, CAL FIRE, and the county fire authority can all see what's happening on the scene, see which direction the fire is moving, see how quickly it’s growing. Then we can manage resources based on the information we’re seeing.” In sum, this technology allows fire agencies to make informed decisions when responding to wildfires (Levine, 2018). 

  • Free Ride Everywhere Downtown Program

In partnership with electric mobility company Circuit, San Diego launched its Free Ride Everywhere Downtown (FRED) program in 2014. FRED is an eco-friendly shuttle service available to visitors and locals in San Diego’s downtown area. The six-passenger, open-air shuttles can be booked through the Ride Circuit app or hailed on the street. Since initiating the project, FRED shuttles have transported over 900,000 passengers, which adds up to a 750 metric ton reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Due to the initiative’s success, the city plans to expand FRED’s area of operation to include other nearby districts (Van Grove, 2021). 

San Diego has rightfully earned itself the title of “Smart City” through the implementation of various urban planning and environmental initiatives. As the infrastructure used to enact these projects improves, we look forward to seeing how San Diego will continue to lead the way as a global pioneer of Smart City technology. 


Smart City Works is a non-profit focused on solving urban challenges through technology and innovation that fosters greater economic development. We harness the power of digital technology to create smart, sustainable, and resilient communities. 

Contact us today to learn more about how Smart City Works can help you innovate your organization, business, or community. 


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Port of San Diego Pioneers Technology for Energy, Cost Savings (a)

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Use of Solar Powered Electric Vehicle Charging Stations at San Diego Zoo on the Rise (b)

Photo by Stephen Leonardi from Pexels

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