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3 design solutions to sort out the carbon impact of logistics

March 23, 2022

By Greg Hall

Today’s advanced warehouses do not have to sacrifice ROI to reach net zero

We feel the effects of consumer-based carbon emissions and associated climate change in our daily lives. Recent research suggests that the “felt impact” of the climate crisis comes in the form of more common extreme weather events. These events disrupt our businesses, our power grid, our lives. They indicate the urgent need to drive down carbon emissions to rein in climate change.

Government and industry leaders have established targets for carbon reduction for 2040 and 2050. The goals are ambitious. Roughly 33% of our carbon emissions come from transport and buildings. If we focus there, we can significantly reduce carbon by 2050. One area we can focus is in consumer-goods fulfillment, which includes the distribution chain and warehousing.

New goals for the distribution chain and warehouse

The world leaders in logistics and warehousing are often early adopters of innovative technology and efficiency strategies. They know that small changes in their operations and facilities can make a huge impact on their business and the world at large because of the scale at which they operate. 

The leaders in logistics and warehousing are often early adopters of innovative technology and efficiency strategies.

Now, they’re leading the charge and embracing sustainability. Some are even pledging to reach net zero by 2050. They are taking a close look at how they use energy and resources. They are likely driven by a mix of ethical business practices and the desire to make their operations more resilient to shocks in the energy market and climate change. Ultimately, this achieves a higher return on investment in their next generation assets. This vast and expanding industry is driving innovation and even widening the adoption of sustainable practices.

Taking action

Companies like Amazon, Walmart, GE, PepsiCo, and LEGO are committing to global climate pledges—such as the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement—to help reduce their carbon footprint by 2050. Some are making pledges as early as 2040.

For example, Amazon cofounded The Climate Pledge in September 2019, which commits Amazon (its global operations and all its buildings) and all pledge signatories to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040. That is 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement. To help meet these targets, Amazon is ordering 100,000 electric trucks, for example.

Amazon tracks building carbon emissions in three ways. They are direct emissions through on-site combustion of fuel and use of refrigerants; indirect emissions through on-site electricity use; and indirect emissions from the building’s lifecycle, including the embodied carbon in building materials, construction, and products.

Leading companies within the logistics and fulfillment industry believe they can find long-term savings by investing in responsible carbon practices.

The quest for return on investment

Certification is no longer a driving factor for industry, and it’s not the government alarm bells that are spurring action. Rather, the industry is looking for a return on investment from these sustainability efforts.

Energy price volatility and other factors can greatly affect their bottom line. Leading companies within the logistics and fulfillment industry believe they can find long-term savings by investing in responsible carbon practices.

High-tech operations

Today’s warehouses are anything but big dumb boxes. We design these high density, process-oriented spaces to be packed with technology from the inside out. These warehouses use robotics, artificial intelligence, geo coordinates and other data for scanning, sorting, and redistributing packages—all of which is power intensive.

The scale of these structures ranges from a few hundred thousand to almost 4 million square feet. They measure close to a quarter mile long and over 100 feet tall. They operate 24 hours a day. We must design these spaces for efficiency and laboratory-like cleanliness. Today’s logistics warehouse is a complex building type with significant power needs.

Numbers needed

Companies want to know that their investment in sustainability for a new high-tech logistics warehouse can deliver returns. They want numbers. Currently, our team is supporting our client’s sustainability focus by providing case studies on their pending projects.

In a typical study, we look at up-front capital investment and short-term costs over a 20-year lease as the baseline. Then we calculate time of payback on these investments against predicted energy usage (based on historical data from comparable sites) with conventional systems and approaches. We show our clients what’s necessary for them to achieve goals such as full electrification by 2025 and annual carbon-neutrality soon after. 

There are three kinds of solutions for clients to meet their low carbon goals in warehouses and logistics facilities. We start with designing for energy efficiency.

Where to begin

There are three kinds of solutions for clients to meet their low carbon goals in warehouses and logistics facilities. First, we examine how the client’s buildings can use energy more efficiently through design. Then we calculate their use of smart systems for energy management. Finally, we look at on-site and off-site renewable generation.

  1. Design for energy efficiency. We examine design and systems solutions for energy savings. These include increased building envelope performance, highly reflective and absorptive coatings, expanded heat recovery in IT rooms and elsewhere, site and orientation, and other strategies. We compare the use of rooftop units for heating and cooling with the use of a central plant for efficiency and performance. We look at options for adjusting the lighting, air handling, and other requirements relative to use and safety that can reduce the building’s energy appetite.
  2. Calculate the use of smart systems. We also analyze the ability of active system management, which may include grid and renewable inputs, smart technologies, monitoring, and metering. We want the smart systems to manage facility peak demand, increase grid interactivity, and maximize use of distributed energy resources.
  3. Examine options for energy generation. To reduce fossil fuel use on site, we’ll look at options for full electrification and use of renewables at these facilities. We explore options such as ground-source heat pumps; solar thermal water heating; and various on-site options like wind turbines, battery storage, and renewable sources such as rooftop and parking area photovoltaic arrays. Once we have maximized those options, we look at access to off-site renewables to meet energy needs.

Developing standards

We deliver recommendations to help clients develop a template of carbon reduction measures. We also provide deliverables such as guidelines for utility providers, a screening tool for potential sites, and long-term operations recommendations. The client can replicate the process at other facilities. Ideally, they apply our ideas across their assets.

The supply chain

If you have been a consumer this past year, you know that interruption within the supply chain can occur suddenly and be disruptive. Today’s way of life, however, relies on the speed, convenience, and scale of this global supply chain.

From this experience, we know that logistics and warehousing are only going to grow and increase in their importance in the near term. Right now, we can make a next generation supply chain that is more resilient and less carbon intensive. We believe that these goals are intertwined. And we believe a mix of strategies including microgrids, digital twin technology, and electrification can make large reductions in carbon and deliver ROI in the next generation of warehouse distribution facilities.

  • Greg Hall

    An architect and digital practice expert, Greg focuses on creating teams and practice improvements that make our projects more efficient.

    Contact Greg
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