In the face of growing demand for warehouses, an effort is being made to make them greener

Warehouses and distribution centers, of course, uncomfortable buildings, have become hotbeds of the coronavirus epidemic as online shopping has accelerated the growth of e-commerce and started the frenzy of buying and building boxy, low-rise structures, raising rents and increasing returns for investors.

Now, as investors and others embrace carbon-reduction targets, the challenge is to make those buildings greener.

In the United States, where regulations are light, developers are lagging behind their European counterparts in building sustainable warehousing and distribution centers that are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Another reason for inequality, experts say, is that leases can discourage spending on improvements that could curb energy use.

But American companies have begun taking steps to make their warehouses more energy efficient, including upgrading building materials. And some warehouse owners are even turning roofs into solar farms that can power building activities and, in many cases, lower utility costs for nearby homeowners and businesses.

As more community solar programs are launched and local governments set more ambitious decarbonization targets, progress is expected to accelerate.

“It’s the beginning of a wave,” said Brian M. Lamont, senior vice president of capital and construction management at STAG Industrial, Boston Real Estate Investment Trust with a large warehouse portfolio.

The need for change is urgent, experts say. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, with carbon emissions from both construction and activity.

Warehousing and distribution centers – usually dedicated to large, open internal storage for a small amount of square footage dedicated to office functions – may seem easier to green than other real estate. Many of them take a small amount of energy to run, compared to densely populated structures such as office buildings or hotels.

“The path to decarbonization is shallow,” said Christopher Babatop, associate director of real estate at Oxford Economics, a London-based forecasting firm.

A new generation of net-zero warehouses has begun to open across Europe, where building codes and environmental regulations are stricter and more uniform than in the United States.

But the big problem is that many of the existing warehouses are not made to the highest standards. More than 70 percent of industrial space in the United States was created before the 21st century, and one-third of the list is more than 50 years old, according to a report by real estate company Newmark.

Making such buildings greener means ensuring they are well-heated, replacing old lighting for LEDs and upgrading HVAC systems, among other things.

Leasing arrangements often discourage such investments, experts say. In office buildings, a landlord typically hires more than one tenant and runs the building operation; If the owner invests in less energy, then the operating costs are lower. But with warehouses, landlords typically lease a single tenant under a system known as a triple-net lease, which puts the owner, not the owner, in charge of maintenance and operation.

Owner “Come Hands On,” says Brianna Wheeler, BRE’s director of operations in the United States, a building science center in the UK that runs a worldwide sustainable certification program that some warehouse owners follow.

The result is that neither the tenant nor the landlord is particularly motivated to invest in the building; The tenant does not want to spend money on another company’s property, and the owner is reluctant because energy savings will benefit most tenants.

The so-called green lease has emerged in the last few years to deal with the situation. These leases encourage landlords and tenants to share information on things like the use of energy in a building, sometimes leading to collaboration on restoration projects.

And improvements are fast becoming a necessity, experts say, with building performance standards gaining traction, including making carbon reduction mandatory, with the threat of penalties for non-compliant owners. Also, a green warehouse can be more attractive for companies seeking to meet their environmental goals.

In situations where energy consumption is high and the roof of a warehouse is strong, some owners and tenants have installed solar arrays in electrical building operations. For more states, warehouses need to be built with “solar-ready” roofs that can accommodate photovoltaic panels on the go.

But a solar installation large enough to run a warehouse can often take up a small portion of a huge, free-flowing space.

That’s where community solar comes in. To date, there are 21 state and district of Columbia community solar programs, most of which are designed to benefit low- and middle-income utility customers.

Under the programs, a solar developer rents a warehouse roof from the building owner and installs and operates a photovoltaic system, piggybacking the landlord’s property. Power from the rooftop system feeds into the local electrical grid, cleans it, and lowers the bills of customers who subscribe to the community solar program.

For example, Solar Landscape, a community solar developer, installed photovoltaic panels in four warehouses owned by Duke Realty in the northern part of New Jersey and then signed customers up. One of them was Esledy Kabada, a preschool teacher and mother of three, Avenell, NJ, who said her monthly electricity costs had dropped since she joined a community solar program in her area.

Ms. Kabada said there is no fee to join the program. He now receives two monthly bills – one from his utility company, Public Service Electric and Gas and one from Solar Landscape – but the total cost is less than what he used to pay.

“I’m saving money,” he said, adding that he feels better because he’s “part of helping the planet.”

Miss. There is another advantage to community rooftop projects, such as subscribing to Kabada: since they are largely out of sight, they sometimes show no tendency to resist, as do solar farms on the ground.

And the warehouses are located to customers who are already connected to the power grid and can benefit.

Drew Turbin, chief executive of Black Bear Energy, said: “If you think of a distribution center as a building for the distribution of goods, but because of its size and location, it is a very natural place to get electricity from.” To estate companies.

Black Bear has helped set up a rooftop community solar project – which is thought to be the largest in the country – at a warehouse owned by STAG Industrial in Hampstead, Md. The trust leases Penguin Random House a 1.1-million-square-foot building – Marvel Comics – and its 23-acre roof used to store and ship products to a solar developer in Summit Ridge Energy, Arlington, Va.

The Summit Ridge solar installation could generate 9.2 megawatts of electricity, add renewable energy to the grid and reduce utility bills for about 1,300 households and businesses in the local utility service area, including Baltimore and 10 Maryland counties.

“These are mini power plants,” said Steve Rader, chief executive of Summit Ridge, which has completed 13 community solar projects on the roof of the warehouse and plans to complete 24 more this year.

STAG, which acquired the building in 2013, has not yet replaced the existing lighting and HVAC because those systems are still running well, Mr. Lamont said. And despite sending solar energy to customers, the warehouse, built in 2000, runs off the grid, not the roof array.

Still, the community solar project is doing much more than just a small solar installation to get the building up, Mr. Turbin said. “It’s using the roof to its full potential,” he said.

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