By Jeff Wegner, PE, CEM, LEED AP
Although late to the game, life science organizations are catching up to the hundreds of organizations in technology, automotive, and hospitality that have embraced ambitious sustainability targets and committed to using 100% renewable energy in the near future.
To understand the scope of this change, CRB conducted a U.S. survey of more than 500 life science leaders to determine their approach to sustainability. Signaling that a zero carbon revolution is underway in our sector, 84% of those surveyed have some degree of sustainability benchmarking in place, while nearly as many rank energy conservation measures among the top two most impactful technologies available.
The term “zero carbon” is often interchanged with “zero net carbon” — a term usually associated with an offsetting strategy. But zero carbon sets the expectation that companies will eliminate their emissions altogether, not simply compensate for them elsewhere.
While corporate responsibility motivates many, the shift toward zero carbon design also is driven by basic business sense. With the cost of fossil fuels rising, relying on renewable energy sources is becoming a more affordable, reliable, and practical option.
While there are several promising sustainable energy solutions to help you meet these objectives, it’s essential to develop a responsible and cost-effective site utilities master plan that meets your specific needs. That stated, what follows are three of the main considerations we hear from clients during the initial planning stage of an innovative zero carbon project.
The economics of energy consumption are undergoing a major shift, driven by a growing movement to address the climate crisis through better technologies and targeted, proactive financial incentives. In some U.S. regions, fossil fuels and renewable energy have already swapped their traditional places, economically, with sustainable energy becoming more affordable. It’s evident that the cost of non-renewable energy will continue to rise, motivating more companies to invest in facilities designed for renewable alternatives.
California leads the way in making this question of affordability moot. As of late 2021, more than 50 cities and counties in the state are considering ordinances to limit natural gas in new construction, and more than 50 others have formally committed to eliminating gas in favor of all-electric designs for new construction projects.
The growth of this movement to incentivize renewable energy through financial and legal pathways can be seen in the burgeoning popularity of community choice aggregate legislation, which allows cities or counties to buy their electricity in bulk from a private-sector provider, cutting costs and allowing communities to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint by supporting clean energy providers in the private sector.
But there are challenges. Initial investment can be high, and companies may find it challenging to establish whose budget ought to cover a transition to zero carbon.
Counter-balancing those challenges, though, are significant benefits. Lifecycle cost savings could be huge as fossil fuels become more expensive and renewable energy sources become more affordable. In addition, when you electrify your heating and cooling systems, you may no longer need traditional, dedicated, one-hour-rated boiler rooms for combustion equipment.
Equipment vendors have begun investing in R&D programs for clean energy technology to serve the life science market, disproving the conventional belief that pharma manufacturing is too energy-intensive to rely on fully electrified/decarbonized equipment.
Manufacturers are also applying their ingenuity to repurpose existing basic technology for novel use cases. Some of the core technology that stands to have the greatest impact on energy use has been around for decades.
Our experience reveals a couple of significant potential technology advantages. For instance, you can use energy modeling to validate the potential impacts of new equipment and de-risk your investment in novel technologies. Modeling is just one tool in the arsenal to help you design a decarbonization plan that’s specific to your site and the needs of your manufacturing process.
Secondly, by planning for self-generated power, a tenet of zero carbon design, you can greatly improve your resilience, redundancy, and reliability so that even if the public grid fails, your facility won’t.
Finding alignment regarding climate action across an enterprise can be a challenge. If you’re convinced that decarbonization is necessary, and you’ve seen the evidence that clean energy technology is ready and available to life science organizations, you may be wondering how to influence those in a position to select the A&E partners for your zero carbon project and establish a culture of innovation and change.
Our advice: Start with the corporate vision and ensure there’s no incompatibility between your company’s vision and its boots-on-the-ground decision-making regarding truly sustainable design. Without alignment, your sites might be in danger of non-compliance while head office is still mulling over the path ahead.
Potential activation challenges:
- Successfully transitioning to zero carbon requires a substantial shift in mindset, and such a shift takes time, investment, and extraordinary leadership.
- Even once your company has made this commitment, it can be hard to find the right expertise to put it into action. There are a lot of MEP engineers out there who default to what they know best, which, more often than not, is fossil fuels.
- A successful zero carbon project needs the right people to collaborate, at the right time. And the right time is right at the beginning. The window for achieving true end-to-end decarbonization shrinks rapidly as a project evolves, and it is especially narrow in existing facilities; while proper master planning can help mitigate the situation, a retrofit costs several times more than proactive planning from the start.
Potential activation advantages:
- Meaningful change is possible when a company is able to align current capital projects with their long-term corporate objectives. If you’re committing to a future decarbonization goal, start with today’s decisions and demonstrate that you’re making these changes because your company saw an opportunity to make a difference and build a stronger business.
The Road Ahead
The decisions that life science manufacturers make today will determine who’s still around — and profitable — five years from now, when renewable energy is far more economical than fossil fuels and when zero carbon facilities are the norm. To get there, companies need to aim for the intersection of good design/construction practices and sustainable energy innovations. That’s where you’ll uncover the key to economic advantage, site resiliency, and a healthier planet.
Wegner is a registered mechanical engineer, Certified Energy Manager and LEED Accredited Professional with experience in mechanical design and project management. His career began in 2005 and is focused in the life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, aerospace, high-tech industrial and energy services industries. His diverse background lends itself well to his unique innovation in design on projects from mission critical facilities to sustainability projects.