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The anatomy of a carbon-neutral building

What does it take to make a carbon-neutral building? A lot of energy-efficient technologies, renewable energy, and other environmentally friendly solutions. Based on our experience with warehouses and logistics centers, we break them down for you here.
What does it take to make a carbon-neutral building? A lot of energy-efficient technologies, renewable energy, and other environmentally friendly solutions. Based on our experience with warehouses and logistics centers, we break them down for you here.
24 May 2024 •

Pulling the decarbonization levers

The number of organizations setting net-zero targets in line with the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) is rising – and that is great news! But many won’t achieve their goals unless their efforts to decarbonize include their supply chains.

We are doing our best to help with that, but there is still a long road ahead. One part of the supply chain that often gets overlooked is warehouse sustainability, which we are trying to change. That includes leveraging the latest technologies to make our buildings more sustainable. In the future, we believe carbon-neutral buildings will become the new standard in logistics. We can even envision a world where environmentally friendly warehouses and fulfillment centers become local power distribution hubs.

But what does it take to operate a carbon-neutral building? Based on our experience, we have identified a number of standard and advanced levers to increase efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in warehouses. We would like to share these “efficiency and decarbonization levers” here, as they will become increasingly important as we drive supply chains toward net zero.

"Decarbonization is not a choice between economy and environment, it is a choice between prosperity and decline. The future belongs to those who embrace it.", said Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

Standard efficiency and decarbonization levers

Renewable Energy
1
Renewable energy from the grid
2 Solar panels (PV)
3 Solar-ready roof
4 Battery storage ready

Efficient Lighting
5
LED lighting with smart controls
6 Vertical skylights

Electrical
7
Electrical vehicle charging (commercial)
8 Electrical vehicle charging (cars)
9 Efficient transformers

Heating & Cooling
10
Efficient HVAC / optimization
11 Natural ventilation
12 Solar shades
13 Efficient dock seals/air tightness
14 Rapid-rise doors

Building Automation & Metering
15
Building automation
16 Main meter energy monitoring
17 Sub meters advanced energy monitoring

Environmental
18  Biodiversity
19 Rainwater harvesting
20  Low use water appliances

What is a carbon-neutral building?

You may be surprised to learn that it is difficult to answer this question. That is because many terms are used to describe carbon-neutral buildings, but no global standards exist. For example, the European Union defines a zero-emission building as a “building with a very high energy performance, with the very low amount of energy still required fully covered by energy from renewable sources and without on-site carbon emissions from fossil fuels.” The World Green Building Council defines a “net zero energy building” as one where on-site renewable resources supply 100 percent of the energy demand. If you purchase off-site renewable energy, they call it “net zero operational carbon.”

However, most experts agree that net carbon emissions must be zero for a building to be considered carbon neutral – and that making a building highly energy efficient is the first step.

As you will see below, there are many aspects to consider and many technologies available to help you achieve your sustainability goals.

"The term ‘carbon-neutral building’ is misleading because they are much more than that. They are part of a local ecosystem and the backbone of the charging infrastructure for zero CO2e emission transport.", said Jakob Wegenast, Head of Global GoGreen, DHL Supply Chain.

Standard decarbonization levers

Warehouses usually make up a smaller portion of a company’s GHG emissions, but making warehouses more sustainable is a viable and very tangible tool for reducing a supply chain’s carbon footprint. Some now-standard technologies, such as LED lights with smart controls, sustainable heating systems, and rooftop solar panels, can be used to retrofit existing facilities in some cases. More advanced technologies, like enhanced on-site building automation, wind turbines, and batteries to store renewable energy depend a lot on the local conditions. Other levers that require structural changes to the building, such as vertical skylights, only work in new constructions.

Here is a list of steps you can take that are now standard in many parts of the world.

Renewable energy

Local renewable energy is arguably the most essential part of any carbon-neutral building blueprint. It immediately lowers external electricity demand, lowers heating emissions, and sets the stage for other sustainable technologies.

  • Upgrade roofs and their support structures so that they can accommodate photovoltaic (PV) systems (“solar-ready”).
  • Install solar panels, making sure to optimize system size for maximum benefit.
  • Prepare the battery infrastructure needed to be ready for future energy storage solutions.
  • Purchase renewable energy to cover remaining power needs.

Efficient lighting

More efficient lighting has been available for some time now, with LED and natural light options pretty much standard in new constructions. However, an intelligent approach ensures that lighting is both functional and sustainable.

  • Install LED lighting with smart controls, analyzing your space and using sensors to ensure the lights adjust based on daylight, presence, and time.
  • Integrate vertical skylights (vertical panels rather than roof panels) into warehouse designs to harness natural daylight, reduce solar gain, and minimize the need for artificial lighting.

Electric vehicles

The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is crucial for sustainability. We must integrate them into the design of carbon-neutral buildings, especially warehouses and other logistics facilities where many EVs are in use. Designers need to focus on establishing a robust charging infrastructure with charging stations for a variety of vehicles.

  • Install charging points for commercial and road vehicles coming to and from the warehouse, with room to expand in the future.
  • Install charging points for on-site operations vehicles, such as forklifts and yard trucks, with room to expand in the future.
  • Install charging points for a sufficient amount of your car parking spacing, with preparations to equip all spaces in the future.
  • Install efficient transformers to optimize energy distribution and minimize loss throughout your charging infrastructure.

Heating and cooling

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems consume significant energy and produce GHG emissions. There are many ways to optimize these systems and integrate smart sensors and controls to reduce energy use, emissions, and costs.

  • Analyze and determine the optimum HVAC solutions, such as heat pumps, chillers with high-efficiency ratings, and refrigerants with low global warming potential.
  • Use sensors and controls and establish zones and sub-zones to accommodate operational differences. Adapt the time of use and temperature level to meet needs.
  • Automate the control of natural ventilation, creating air flow from natural forces.
  • Install indoor and outdoor sunshades to reduce solar gain on windows.
  • Install components and measures to improve airtightness around windows, doors, dock doors, and dock levelers in heated or cooled environments.
  • Install rapid-rise doors in temperature-controlled facilities, which automatically open and close quickly to maintain the internal environment.

Building automation and metering

Automation is key to reducing energy bills and GHG emissions. Smart meters can identify energy wastage and help optimize energy usage, leading to resource-efficient and eco-friendly building operations.

  • Expand sensors and actuators to automate core components like lighting and HVAC.
  • Install main meter energy monitoring for all utilities, with real-time data access to facilitate comprehensive energy management.
  • Install submeters to cover primary energy consumption sources, such as lighting, HVAC, electric vehicle charging, etc.

Environmental

Sustainable landscaping and site design can enhance a building's overall environmental health and reduce its carbon footprint by promoting biodiversity, minimizing water consumption, sequestering carbon, and more. It is increasingly becoming a must-have in carbon-neutral buildings.

  • Increase local biodiversity by planting native wildflowers and climate-resistant trees instead of conventional grass. Then go a step further by setting up conservation measures like bird/bat boxes and insect hotels to support local species.
  • Install a rainwater harvesting system to collect, store, and use rainwater e.g. to water plants.
  • Install low-use water appliances, such as spray, sensor-controlled, and time-flow taps and low-flush toilets.

"Decarbonization is not just about cutting emissions, it is about investing in a cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous future for all.", said Ban Ki-moon, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Advanced decarbonization levers

Now let us look at more advanced approaches to reducing energy consumption and minimizing GHG emissions on the path to a carbon-neutral building. Advanced technologies like these depend a lot on local conditions and need to be checked thoroughly for feasibility before implementation.

Renewable energy

  • Install on-site wind turbines.
  • Install on-site batteries to store energy and use it at night or for backup power.

Efficient lighting and electrical

  • Utilize lighting infrastructure to transfer data or monitor and guide device movements.
  • Replace conventional cables to reduce power loss.

Heating and cooling

  • Generate heat with more sustainable alternatives, such as biomass boilers, solar thermal heating, or in the future hydrogen.
  • Install advanced heat distribution systems, such as dedicated workspace heating instead of entire building areas.
  • Install wall-mounted solar panels on sun-facing facades.
  • Leverage waste heat for cooling with an absorption chiller or use adiabatic cooling, which cools by evaporating water.
  • Upgrade the roof with a membrane or paint to reflect the sun and reduce thermal gain.
  • Upgrade insulation to reduce loss.
  • Use enhanced glazing to reflect the sun and reduce thermal gain, or install glass facades that harness heat in the winter and block it in the summer.

Building automation and metering

  • Install an advanced building management system for a more sophisticated user interface and control of all HVAC systems.
  • Integrate AI tools to leverage machine learning and data analytics, such as weather forecasting, to optimize key components of building operations.

Environmental

  • Create a green roof to reduce solar heat gain and cool via evaporation in the summer and reduce heat loss in the winter, as well as store water and provide a habitat for insects.
  • Recycle used tap water (grey water harvesting) to supply restrooms and outside taps and lower water usage.

Creating a carbon-neutral building is about making sustainable business standard practice

As you can see, there are many ways to make buildings more sustainable and ultimately carbon neutral. And we have not even covered recycled and sustainable building materials, furniture, indoor plants, or living walls. New ideas and innovations are popping up every day!

Combining it all to design a carbon-neutral building is complex but undoubtedly achievable. Many of the technologies and approaches outlined above are now standard practice in new constructions – and it will not be long before the latest advancements become the norm as well.

As we move toward a greener future, it is clear that creating sustainable supply chains requires a holistic and innovative approach. And that carbon-neutral warehouses and other logistics buildings must be part of it.

This story was first published on DHL Delivered and was republished with permission.


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