Can modern, high-tech warehouses rely solely on the power grid?
As warehouses add automation, facilities managers explore alternative energy and smart sensors to reduce reliance on the grid.
As facilities add more tech, they’re also changing the way they use power, and how much of it. If done right, modern warehouses — or retrofitted warehouses — can put less stress on the nation’s power grid, despite having more automated and powered technology than ever before.
"A lot of people have been working very hard to make our national grid a little bit more stable," Jim Mathers, CEO and president of Energy Professionals, told Supply Chain Dive in an interview. Still, isolated outages, natural disasters, and the threat of the power grid being hacked has facility managers looking to make their power supplies less reliant on the grid.
It can save a lot of money too, not just in spending less on energy itself but staying in operation should an outage happen, whether it's a hack, as happened at Puerto Rico’s power utility last year, or a massive outage as is currently affecting Venezuela’s power grid.
"Energy is like air and water. You just assume you wake up and that you’re going to be able to breathe. You assume that if you’re thirsty you can get a glass or bottle of water," said Mathers. "Without energy, a business can’t produce its project for its consumers. We assume when we get to the plant, the lights are working and the motors are running."
Self-power for less stress on the grid
The best way to put less stress is to pull as little energy from it as possible. Some facilities "island" themselves into their own microgrids, Andrew Dillon, senior principal of energy and utilities at West Monroe Partners, told Supply Chain Dive in an interview.
This is where a facility "connects to the grid at a point of common coupling that maintains voltage at the same level as the main grid," according to the Department of Energy. If something goes wrong with the grid, the facility can switch off from the main grid to separate its microgrid and act independently. The Illinois Institute of Technology, New York University and the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg all have microgrids.
Still, Dillon said, "I think every facility is going to rely on the grid to some degree."
Already, large facilities are putting solar panels on the roof or building solar canopies over parking areas and using battery storage systems to power their facilities. They’re not necessarily there to completely power operations but "to play a buffering role, and those two technologies are going a long way to providing more energy independence for the facility," Dillon said.
While most facilities can’t go more than 24 hours on their own power, it does help to have some kind of backup plan. It also allows them to rely on their own power sources at times of the day, like in the afternoon and early evening during peak hours, when energy prices are high, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which can save millions of dollars in energy spending.
Retrofitting old warehouses with new, smart technology
Building sustainable warehouses from the ground up can create facilities less dependent on the grid, but using smart technology for existing facilities can make a difference too.
Smart technology can help companies identify shifts they can make in when to draw from their own resources, said Mathers, and when they can turn things on and off to make a difference without workers knowing, like shutting down air conditioning units at 4 p.m. when most employees leave at 5 p.m.
"Warehouses are a critical part of the distribution process and will need to keep up with the kind of technology coming in."
Senior Principal of Energy and Utilities, West Monroe Partners
Mathers worked with a Dallas-based operation that had a four-story glass high window in an atrium, and the space could never cool down. When the company brought in energy intelligence and monitored the HVAC system, they found nine of the 18 air conditioning units on the building’s roofs weren’t even running.
"If we can monitor all the air conditioning units all the conveyer belts, any elevators, any of the big motors, any of the lighting circuits, we can control and monitor all of the basic functions of that building remotely," he said.
Warehouses that don’t prepare for modern supply chains are going to struggle, said Dillon, adding that most facilities can’t afford to not modernize their facilities, which is why adopting less energy using technologies should be on their future road map.
"Years out, we’re looking at more automation — of forklifts, of certain delivery vehicles. Warehouses are a critical part of the distribution process and will need to keep up with the kind of technology coming in," he said. "The older school warehouses are going to struggle to keep up with the expectations of the ecosystem in many regards whether it’s energy footprint or energy efficiency."
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