Supply Chain Whiteout

Supply Chain Whiteout

White is the new green for companies in the cold chain that want to improve their environmental rating.

Most warehouses boast a generic black roof, the least expensive way to top a building. But when Merchants Terminal in Baltimore built a new refrigerated warehouse last year, it spent a little extra to put on a white roof with a special coating that reflects rather than absorbs sunlight and heat.

“If the roof doesn’t get as hot, we don’t have to run the cooling units as much,” said Brooks Royster, vice president of Merchants Terminal. “It can make a big difference.”

Refrigerated warehouse operators aren’t alone going white, which is part of the growing number of low-tech tactics companies are adopting in the cold chain to reduce energy use.

Crowley Liner Services, the container shipping subsidiary of Oakland, Calif.-based Crowley Maritime, is experimenting with a white coating on the top of its reefer boxes. “We are testing a product that can be painted on the roof of a reefer to reduce heat absorbency,” said Bob Rousseau, vice president of intermodal.

Without the coating, he said, the temperature of a roof can reach 195 degrees on a hot day, turning the top of the box into a heat sink that pulls high temperatures through insulation and into the cooled box.

Rousseau said it’s not plain white paint, but rather an acrylic elastomeric coating infused with ceramic micro-beads that increases reflectivity to the point where on a sunny 90-degree day, the roof would stay within 5 degrees of the ambient temperature.

Initial results from the tests look promising, he said. “If the tests work, we’ll put the coating on the roofs in the factory whenever we buy new containers,” Rousseau said. “The product will add about $600 to $700 per unit, but fuel cost savings will be so significant that the additional costs will be recouped in a year or two.”

Going white isn’t the only way the roof figures into Merchant Terminals’ plans for sustainability. The new facility was designed with extra gauge steel to accommodate solar panels.

“We’re in the process of researching which type and brand of solar panels to install,” Royster said. “The roof is 155,000 square feet, and we have 100,000 square feet that is empty up there. We think we’ll be able to supply about 13 percent of the electricity we need to run the entire 6 million-cubic-foot facility.”

Questions company officials are asking include: “What generation of solar panels do we want? What’s the best deal? And should we wait for the next generation, which will be more efficient and produce more electricity for less cost?”

Royster said the study wouldn’t go on forever. “We’re costing ourselves money while we wait to do this. We hope to install the panels next year,” he said.

The Baltimore warehouse isn’t unique in considering a solar solution. Halls Warehouse in South Plainfield, N.J.; Innovative Cold Storage Enterprises in San Diego; Tony’s Fine Foods in West Sacramento, Calif.; the Whole Foods’ distribution center in Cheshire, Conn.; a Frito-Lay distribution center in Rochester, N.Y.; and several Wal-Mart stores and distribution centers all have solar arrays.

Sierra Nevada Brewing has gone several steps beyond other companies. At its Northern California brewery and distribution center, the beer maker put solar panels on the roof. It also built covered parking for its employees and is installing solar arrays on both roofs that rotate toward the sun.

Transportation companies for years have been looking for ways to reduce fuel consumption and decrease their environmental footprint. Now, both in the business world and among regulators, the focus is turning to refrigeration systems, primarily because they use so much energy to cool and freeze foods and to keep temperatures steady.

Insulation helps keep high temperatures outside from entering a refrigerated warehouse, truck, railcar or container. Crowley’s Rousseau said high-tech insulation is another area his company is using to meet higher environmental standards.

“Probably the biggest thing you can do is make sure you have good insulation in the container,” Rousseau said. An older type of insulation reduced fuel use by keeping temperatures low, but was harmful in other ways because the insulation contained chemicals that depleted the ozone layer and promoted global warming.

He said new Crowley containers, built by Maersk Container Industry, use a sustainable polyurethane technology known as SuPoTech. “It’s not just now and what happens this year. We know that what makes up that reefer container and its afterlife affect things,” Rousseau said. “These containers 10 or 15 years down the road won’t have a negative effect on the environment.”

Royster said the new Merchants Terminal facility boasts several other features that advance the goal of sustainability. “In most warehouses, you back a truck up to the dock, and then open the doors of the truck and the door to the warehouse and use forklifts to move the product across the dock and into the warehouse,” he said.

A new door design makes that unnecessary. “Now we back the truck up against the warehouse and the warehouse door rolls up,” Royster said. “We aren’t losing cold air, and hot air doesn’t come in the warehouse.” Beyond that, “We are also maintaining the security chain. The truck seals aren’t broken until it is in the warehouse.”

The new roof material, the new door configuration and higher insulation values have allowed Merchants to engage in another cost-saving process. The facility is part of a program with the local energy company that allows it to decrease its energy use at times when electricity is at its price peak per kilowatt hour.

An energy management system allows the warehouse to shed some of its load during peak period on the electric grid. Because Baltimore Gas and Electric uses differential pricing, electricity costs more when the grid is delivering the most power. BGE gives a couple days notice, and the facility plans around the pricing news, Royster said. “We have a new blast freezing unit, but during the peak periods we wouldn’t use that. We know in advance, so we tell the poultry exporters, and we don’t receive the product during those times. If they know in advance, it doesn’t affect their supply chain either,” he said.

The biggest energy saving, Royster said, comes from turning off the compressors. “We’re a great big ice chest so we can store therms for a period of time,” he said. Warehouse personnel monitor the inside temperature to make sure it never gets above a set point. “When the costs start to fall back and the grid is not so taxed, then we get back on.”

When solar panels are installed, the company will have more room to play with energy management, Royster said. “We’ll be able to get off the grid soon and stay off longer,” he said.

California regulators are taking a keen interest in mobile refrigeration units. New rules by the California Air Resources Board govern the type of engine and age of equipment on transportation refrigeration units. The units are on refrigerated trucks, railcars and intermodal equipment.

“CARB established an emissions life for equipment,” said David Kiefer, director of marketing and product management for Carrier Transicold’s North American truck, trailer and rail division. “In general, after seven years you have to replace the unit, replace the engine in the unit or use alternative technology.”

That alternative technology, known as electric standby, is the highway and warehouse equivalent of cold-ironing for vessels. Once a refrigerated truck or trailer gets to a warehouse or truck stop, it turns off the transportation refrigeration unit and instead plugs in to a source of electricity.

While CARB has not said the plug-in is required, it is getting to be a more popular option with shippers and carriers, Kiefer said. “With a standard unit, you can use it seven years and then spend a minimum of $5,000 to replace the engine. But if you buy electric standby, there are a couple things going for you,” he said. “It’s CARB-compliant from the day it is purchased. When the unit is on electric standby, it is quieter. There is no noise, which makes distribution centers a better neighbor. And there are no diesel emissions, which also can make your facility a better neighbor. For some facilities that have residential neighbors, it can be important.”

Energy costs also are lower, Kiefer said. “It definitely costs less per hour to run a refrigerated trailer on electricity than diesel fuel,” he said. The savings depend on the current cost of diesel and the electricity, but “in general, you save between 40 percent and 70 percent on energy costs by plugging in.”

And, because there are fewer moving parts used when the unit is plugged in, maintenance costs on the electric standby equipment is lower as well, he said.

CARB, local officials and the Environmental Protection Agency continue to press transportation and warehousing to cut fuel usage. While the challenges aren’t about to fall away, progress has been made.

“Over the last 10 to 12 years, we’ve been able to reduce the fuel used to run our gen-sets by about half,” Rousseau said. “It used to be about one gallon per hour. Our most recent statistics show it to be less than half a gallon per hour. That’s a major fuel cost saving and less wear and tear on the unit because it isn’t running as many minutes per hour. The compressors run to bring down the temperature, and if we can keep the temperature down in another way, it doesn’t run and use the fuel.”

Even before the solar panels are installed, Royster said the new Merchants Terminal facility is significantly better than the 60-year old building it replaced.

“We have reduced our total carbon footprint by 15 percent in moving from the older facility to the new one,” Royster said. He said energy consumption fell from 0.18 kilowatts per cubic foot in the older facility, to about half that in the new facility.

Contact Stephanie Nall at stephnall@aol.com.