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Sea change: 5 smart technologies to help us design better shipping gateways

December 16, 2020

By Kip Skabar

New technology can help us design more resilient, less carbon-intensive ports and marine terminals

The fall and early winter season is historically one of the busiest for goods movement, including high container volumes moved through marine terminals. This year has seen an unprecedented volume of online shopping, which has tested the efficiency of the supply chain for many regions. 

When most people think of smart technology and its ability to cut carbon emissions, they think about autonomous (AV) and electric vehicles or boosting the energy performance of commercial buildings. What about those areas most of us don’t see—the supply chain, our ports and terminals, and the infrastructure that makes global trade an everyday reality? What does this technology mean for reducing the carbon demands and increasing the efficiency of shipping?

Centerm container terminal in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. (Image courtesy of DP World)

New priorities

We see signs that the shipping industry is committed to change. New priorities are emerging in ports and terminals that include safety, efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability. Smart mobility technology and other innovations can enhance each of them. While the shipping industry generates approximately 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—considerably less than aviation or road freight—it is still responsible for over a billion tons of global carbon emissions a year. Carbon appetite reduction presents an opportunity.

Governments and private industry are realizing the importance of this infrastructure where the land meets the sea, considering climate change and extreme weather events. They are concerned about sea level rise, increased rainfall intensity, energy consumption, carbon footprint, air quality assessment, and other issues regarding their ports and terminals infrastructure. Marine terminals are often near large urban areas and contribute to a variety of community and social impacts. I am encouraged to see government agencies and international businesses prioritize resiliency. At the same, a series of new technologies such as smart mobility shows great promise in delivering safety, sustainability, and efficiency.

The shipping industry is … responsible for over a billion tons of global carbon emissions a year.

Rapid advancements

Supply-chain-optimization technology such as blockchain (basically a digitized filing system on an open platform for tracking shipments) is evolving quickly. Similarly, smart mobility technology has advanced rapidly. Clients in the ports and terminals must keep current with latest technological possibilities—from smart storage systems to shore power—to understand what they can implement effectively. They need innovative ideas on how to optimize and network the components. They need input on where and why to use smart mobility technology.

So, what makes up this technology menu and how can implementation contribute to resiliency or reduced carbon footprint? Let’s look at five promising technologies.

Tech #1: Smart mobility, AVs, electric and hybrid vehicles, stop-start engines

In Canada, the industry has started converting to electric vehicles and autonomous technology at container terminals. At West Coast terminals, test pilot programs are using electric and hybrid container-handling vehicles with significant benefits. As an example, stop-start technology shuts down the engine on idling or stopped vehicles reducing engine hours, fuel costs, and emissions.

Payoff: Using smart mobility tech reduces carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, enhances safety, and saves fuel costs. Other benefits include noise reduction, reduction of maintenance downtime, and better yard efficiency. By using these technologies at our shipping gateways, we will shrink the emissions cloud. 

Smart cargo storage systems require less yard area for a greater density of cargo storage.

Tech #2: Smart cargo storage systems

New container-handling technology, such as intelligent high-bay storage systems, place each container in an individual rack compartment accessed by an automated system.

Payoff: Smart cargo storage systems offer multiple benefits to container yard operations. They require less yard area for a greater density of cargo storage. They also increase terminal efficiency with direct container accessibility, while minimizing the environmental footprint through fully electric technology.

Tech #3: Vessel shore power

Instead of vessels idling and consuming diesel fuel with their auxiliary engines while berthed, vessels can connect to land-based electrical power and turn off their engines.

Payoff: Shore power is a key part of an electrified port. Turning off diesel engines reduces noise and emissions. The Port of Vancouver anticipates reductions in GHG emissions in the range of 95 tons per vessel call and fuel savings in the range of 30 tons per call.

Tech #4: Integrated logistics centers

Inland port facilities can include a range of functions. Some are simply empty container yard storage sites, while others are fully automated intermodal yards and container re-stuffing facilities.

Payoff: The industry can further optimize the supply chain through logistics-center integration. This integration enables the efficient movement of cargo balancing between inland and marine ports. Ultimately, it creates new global trade network opportunities.

Tech #5: Hyperloop-enabled cargo systems

Using 100% electric cargo pods along sealed, low air-pressure tubes, hyperloop cargo systems can deliver freight at the speed of flight and near the cost of trucking.

Payoff: This mode of transport not only is energy efficient, but also reduces finished goods warehouse space and can optimize a 4-day trucking route to be delivered within 16 hours. It’s the future and a more sustainable solution for cargo transport.

Vessel shore power is a key part of an electrified port. Turning off diesel engines reduces noise and emissions.

The new vision of a marine terminal will be more efficient, highly automated, fully electrified, and more sustainable than ever before. Terminal operators are already pushing toward this goal. Port authorities on both Canadian coastlines are working with terminal operators, transportation authorities, Indigenous Peoples, local community members, and all levels of government on a shared vision. That vision will expand the nation’s container-handling capacity, including fully automated, electrified marine terminals that utilize the latest technologies to meet growing trade demands.

But there’s still the question of what metrics we use to assess terminal operations and measure the progress of industry to ensure the perceived benefits of technologies are realized. Our metrics should also incorporate an evaluation of marine terminals around health, social capital, and carbon intensity to provide a holistic assessment of progress towards the future of goods movement.

The challenge

Terminal operators have a daunting task of navigating this highly technological landscape while modernizing their operations. Agencies and operators need expertise to implement sustainable, long-term solutions while managing risk. They need engineered solutions that save money, make their infrastructure more resilient, facilitate permitting, and achieve regulatory requirements.

And there are huge financial investments needed to bring the above-mentioned technologies to fruition. The matter of moving goods around the globe is becoming more sustainable and efficient, but it is anything but simple. I’m excited to help take our ports into a smarter future.

  • Kip Skabar

    As a senior principal and commercial ports leader, Kip fosters an enthusiasm for design while building teams, collaborating across business lines, and delivering award-winning infrastructure projects in the ports and marine terminals sector.

    Contact Kip
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