LStar Ventures and GE want to make the old South Weymouth Naval Air Station a test lab for ‘smart city’ ideas
Those futuristic cities you see in sci-fi movies? Where traffic lights miraculously turn green, parking spaces are easy to find, and sidewalks that melt snow?
One is starting to take shape on the South Shore.
The old South Weymouth Naval Air Station, a sprawling site being redeveloped into a new community known as Union Point, will become a test lab for General Electric’s far-flung ideas for “smart cities’’ of the future.
Boston-based GE has signed a deal with the project’s developer, LStar Ventures, to install experimental technologies in street lights, power equipment, and other urban fixtures as the 1,550-acre property gets built out. Sensors on lights could monitor traffic and direct drivers to less-congested routes or available parking, for example, or digesters could turn waste from restaurants into energy and fertilizer for rooftop farms.
The new deal with GE was highlighted in the proposal LStar just submitted to Amazon to host the online retailing giant’s second headquarters on a 100-acre section of Union Point. The GE name also provides LStar with an instantly recognizable brand as it markets Union Point — which straddles the Weymouth, Abington, and Rockland borders — to other commercial tenants and housing developers.
“In the conversation of Massachusetts being a hotbed of innovation, this is a part of it,’’ said Brian Swett, director of cities and sustainable real estate at Arup, an engineering firm working with LStar. “Being able to test things on a scale like that, it’s relatively unique. It’s a special site, and the stars are aligned to do something that we think will be globally significant.’’
The marketing materials for Union Point show a gleaming city rising above a suburban flatland. But so far, only a small portion of the vast site has been redeveloped. About 850 housing units are occupied right now, with about 2,000 residents living there. But that represents less than one-quarter of the site’s potential for residential development.
LStar chief executive Kyle Corkum said his plan also envisions at least 10 million square feet of commercial development, spread among dozens of buildings. LStar expects to break ground on its first new commercial building, a robotics factory for Prodrive Technologies, in November.
It’s still early in the GE-LStar relationship; the companies don’t yet know which GE technologies will be tested or put to use in LStar’s burgeoning mini-city. GE’s relatively new lighting and energy startup, called Current and also based in Boston, likely will be involved, in part to install “smart lighting’’ on Union Point streets. LStar hopes to harness GE’s renewable energy technologies as well.
For example, GE could develop ways to convert food waste at the site into electricity, through anaerobic digestion plants, and into fertilizer for rooftop farms, where produce would be grown for Union Point residents. Wind turbines and solar panels — made or installed by GE — would serve residents and businesses there. GE may also build a backup power system, tapping into a gas line through the Union Point property.
Meanwhile,through another one of its engineering firms, Corkum said LStar is exploring new technologies that could be used to melt snow on sidewalks.
This fall, Corkum said LStar will start installing GE sensors in street lights at Union Point. These sensors, which can track how many vehicles are on the streets and how fast they’re moving, have the potential to direct drivers to less-congested streets or to open parking spaces.
“It’s more than just buying products from them,’’ Corkum said of the GE partnership. “It’s taking a product and tinkering with it in a real-world environment.’’
GE has worked with other communities to roll out “smart city’’ technologies, including street light projects in Jacksonville and San Diego.
But Abby Abel, global director of GE’s Ecomagination group, said the LStar arrangement involves many more of GE’s various business lines than those used in previous municipal partnerships.
“This is about applying our technologies to achieve a vision of innovation and sustainability that is a first for us, from an urban standpoint,’’ Abel said. “The whole concept is, how do we work together to innovate new technologies that will improve people’s lives?’’
One question that looms over the new GE-LStar partnership: What will GE chief executive John Flannery’s cost-cutting moves mean for its future? Flannery, who became CEO in August, is in the process of identifying billions of dollars worth of businesses to be spun off, and at least $2 billion in expense reductions. Flannery is scheduled to unveil his plans in November.
Corkum said he doesn’t expect Flannery’s budget review to negatively affect the research the company will do at Union Point.
Nick Heymann, an analyst with investment bank William Blair & Co. who follows GE closely, said it can be tough for GE and its peers to integrate these technologies into fully built cities where utilities and other systems have been installed over time. The cities were not designed to be interconnected.
“Taking existing cities and retrofitting this capability for them to ‘become smart’ is a challenge,’’ Heymann said.
But places such as the South Weymouth air base offer a blank canvas. “You almost start with a fresh sheet of paper,’’ he said.
Sean Becker, a former manager with GE’s energy division, said he sees a number of ways the LStar-GE relationship could benefit both companies, particularly because of Union Point’s close proximity to GE’s Boston operations.
“It’s not just PR. You want to test this stuff out, and you want to test everything as it works together,’’said Becker, who now runs energy storage startup Sparkplug Power in Somerville. “GE’s Current is still struggling to bring all the things that GE does and can do, and put it into a useful package. Here is a place where they can do that.’’