Rebuilding the Port of Los Angeles

Shipping is a filthy, dangerous business, but Los Angeles, America’s largest port, is making it greener, cleaner, and more secure.

Rebuilding the Port of Los Angeles
infographic by Don Foley infographic by Don Foley

The port of Los Angeles handles nearly a quarter of the freight that comes into the United States: computers, clothes, cars, you name it. One of the world’s biggest shipping operations, it’s a nucleus within a notoriously dirty industry and a much-maligned weak spot in national security.


Now, with neighboring Long Beach, America’s No. 2 port, L.A. is deploying sophisticated technology to make its facilities more secure, and it’s investing heavily in eco-friendly innovations. After years of protest and lawsuits from nearby communities about polluted air and a higher risk of cancer — residents dubbed the area a “diesel death zone” — the ports created a clean-air action plan in 2006. “The shipping world is this Wild West where companies have evaded environmental controls,” says David Freeman, the outspoken president of the commission that oversees the L.A. port. “Our approach is, ‘We’re the landlord, and you have to clean up your act.’ But you can’t make companies do something unless they’re technically capable of doing it.” Here are nine examples of L.A.’s innovation-spurring strategy.

The Prius of the Seas

L.A. and Long Beach invested $1 million in the first hybrid tugboat, due out this fall. Software on board decides how to deploy the two diesel engines, two generators, and 21,000 pounds of batteries. Tug maker Foss expects fuel savings of 30%.

Park and Plug

Four years ago, Los Angeles became the first U.S. port to offer docked ships a way to avoid idling, which generates about a ton of air pollution per day. Alternative Marine Power (AMP) lets them turn off their engines and plug into the power grid. Over the next four years, the port will spend $100 million to add 13 AMP stations to the 2 it has now.

A Regenerating Crane


The seven-story mobile cranes that lift cargo containers rely on diesel engines to maneuver. When energy-storage outfit Vycon devised a way to regenerate wasted energy, the ports paid for the testing. Now L.A. is spending $471,000 to retrofit three cranes with Vycon’s flywheel system, which should reduce fuel consumption and emissions by one-third.


More than 16,000 trucks haul shipping containers around the port, making an estimated 4 million trips within 30 miles each year. These vehicles tend to be older, emissions-belching castoffs from long-haul fleets. This month, using RFID tracking linked to a central database, the port will prohibit trucks made before 1989. By 2011, the cutoff will be 1997. The goal: to reduce emissions by 80%.

Heavy Duty

The port spent $250,000 helping to develop the first electric truck capable of hauling up to 100,000 pounds. Built locally by Balqon, more than two dozen of the zero-emissions vehicles are expected to arrive by year’s end, saving about $35,000 apiece in annual fuel costs. The port will also earn $1,000 in royalties for each truck that Balqon sells; ports in Canada have already ordered 22.

Airing Things Out


In 2005, the ports installed the industry’s first air-quality monitoring system. Sensors are scattered throughout the complex. Levels of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants are posted online, most in real time, along with state and federal standards (

X-ray Vision

To supplement cargo screening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the port is adding a mobile X-ray scanner that will be the biggest at an American port. It will examine trucks supplying cruise ships. More than 1 million passengers embark at L.A. each year.

Fueling Change


By burning bunker fuel, the dregs of oil refining, the world’s behemoth container ships spew more sulfur dioxide than all cars, trucks, and buses combined. In July, the port complex launched the Cleaner Burning Fuels initiative, creating an $18 million fund to subsidize lower-sulfur fuel for shippers who agree to use it within 40 miles of port. Ships must also slow down within that radius — going faster guzzles more fuel and generates more emissions.



Somebody’s Watching …

More than 200 digital cameras are currently being installed to create the most comprehensive port-security system in the U.S. Some devices will put stretches of the 43 miles of waterfront under high-resolution surveillance. Others will be programmed to monitor storage areas. The software can analyze pixels to differentiate between types of intruders — rodent or man? — and even judge differences in body language, such as between normal conversation and a heated argument.