The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are so busy that they move more cargo than the next five largest U.S. ports combined. They're so efficient that they process more international trade in one month than most North American harbors handle in an entire year.
Now the friendly rivals are leading the way into unexpected waters: attracting, testing and funding cutting-edge technology to reduce emissions and fuel consumption at the ports.
Even as their revenues declined and their budgets shrank in the worst global recession in more than 60 years, the twin ports have become accidental venture capitalists of sorts in the world of green technology.
In the last two years, the two ports and their partners have handed out nearly $40 million to stimulate the development of devices and systems that at first glance might seem a bit wacky, such as a pollution-sucking apparatus placed over a ship's smokestack that looks a little like an old-fashioned bonnet hair dryer gone super-sized. Port officials say they have been contacted by firms in 170 countries that hope to sell ways to reduce pollution and energy consumption by ships, trucks, trains and heavy equipment.
"Individual ports are working with their vendors to try new things, but I'm not aware of another port that has a program like Los Angeles and Long Beach," said Meredith Martino, manager of government relations and environmental policy for the American Assn. of Port Authorities. "They have come up with a systematic way of testing new ideas."
Port money has helped develop:
* A system that allows docked ships to run onboard lights and air conditioning using electricity and the equivalent of giant extension cords rather than relying on pollution-creating diesel fuel.
* An electric truck capable of hauling 60,000-pound cargo containers at a top speed of 40 mph, a feat accomplished not with advanced battery technology but by wiring together an array of forklift batteries. New, longer-range diesel batteries are being tested.
* The world's first diesel-electric hybrid tugboat, built for Foss Maritime Co. of Seattle, that will work local waters using less fuel and emitting fewer pollutants.
The ports' development efforts, much of them funneled through the Technology Advancement Program, were launched as part of the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan, adopted in late 2006. In partnership with other agencies, the ports, using budgets derived largely from lease payments, don't take an ownership position in the companies, instead providing seed money in exchange for guarantees that the technology will be used locally.
Experts say the two ports are putting to rest the notion that environmental regulation is bad for business, contending that green technology will provide the next leap in new jobs and revenue for the state's economy.
The ports are becoming "very important contributors for a new kind of innovation," said David Roland-Holst, a professor at the UC Berkeley Center for Energy, Resources and Economic Sustainability.
"The next knowledge-intensive technology sector is going to be energy efficiency," Roland-Holst said. "They can help revolutionize traditional practices around the world while addressing climate change, the most momentous environmental issue of our time."
The two ports have a powerful incentive to nurture new technology, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a UCLA professor emeritus of management and public policy.
"They were built when no one was worried about pollution," Mitchell said. "Now they are surrounded by big cities. If they are to continue to function as ports, they have to deal with the problems of air quality."
The mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach say they prefer to view it as an opportunity.
"We believe that as we build awareness about climate change, we have to show the public that there are new economic opportunities that come with cleaning the ports," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "We have decided to focus on economic development around the port and its maritime activities, and we are moving faster than any other big city in America."
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said the ports "may never be as big as the movie industry or the defense industry, but when you start down the path to improve, people see that as a business opportunity. How can you meet the same goals, but in a way that is cleaner, faster and maybe less expensive?"
The development program has been maintained even though both ports have implemented some of the most severe budget cuts in recent memory because of the sharp decline in cargo traffic from the global recession. Port officials have acknowledged that long-planned expansion efforts hinge on reducing the effects of their pollution-spewing activities.
So far, the two ports, in collaboration with the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have agreed to fund 14 projects, many of which involve technologies developed by West Coast companies.
The ports are receiving international recognition for their technology investments. The best example is the system used by both ports when ships turn off their diesel engines and plug into shore-side electrical grids to reduce pollution.
The system's publicly available specifications have been approved by the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission, two standards-setting organizations based in Geneva, said Eric Caris, assistant director of marketing for the Port of Los Angeles.
"It provides a guideline. It specifies the voltage and the rating of the power cables and the connectors, the number of cables and deals with all of the safety specifications," Caris said.
Other programs include the development of liquefied natural gas vehicles that would replace diesel-powered trucks at port container terminals; a flywheel technology that would capture energy from the action of yard cranes and convert it to power to reduce diesel emissions; and a high-performance truck engine that would operate at 2010 emissions standards.
The technology development program has brought jobs. At Balqon Corp., the Harbor City company that produced the ports' first electric truck in February with $527,000 from the Port of Los Angeles and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, employment has jumped. The company, founded in 2005, has grown from a few engineers to 15 full-time workers and three part-timers as the manufacturing operation gears up.
The L.A. port has signed on for 25 heavy-duty trucks at a cost of $5.7 million. Balqon Chief Executive Balwinder Samra said he hoped to market the technology to railroads and others, paying the port a royalty for each truck sold to another buyer.
The process under which all new technology is considered operates so seamlessly across the various agencies that officials of both ports are in demand at seminars across the country to talk about how they transformed a nightmarish and disorganized system.
In the past, there was no formal process for pre-screening proposals, forcing port officials to sit through long, unproductive presentations, said Kevin Maggay, an environmental specialist at the Port of Los Angeles.
Now, he said, officials of both ports meet every six weeks with representatives of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, California Air Resources Board and EPA.
"It's much better to evaluate the technology before we talk to them. Now, we funnel them all through a process that is legal and transparent. We're very proud of what we have done," Maggay said.
Richard Steinke, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said companies were responding "to the research they can get done and the funding they can get by coming to our ports. We have a developed a pretty cool tech incubator, and we're seeing a lot of exciting things come about as a result of these efforts."