solar power in front of zero carbon city

Zero carbon considerations for biotech facilities and operations

Your life sciences company can strive for zero carbon on your next project. Here’s how.

What do Google, General Motors and Airbnb have in common? All three global companies, along with hundreds of others, have committed to 100% renewable energy in the near future. They also represent a few of the industries that have more typically embraced ambitious sustainability targets: tech, automotive, hospitality. Over here in the life sciences, this proactive attitude has been slower to arrive.

That’s changing now as more life science companies reach beyond “code minimum” and begin to meaningfully address their impact on the planet. To understand the scope of this phenomenon, we conducted a recent U.S. survey of more than 500 life science leaders to tell us about their approach to sustainability. Their answers are included in our Horizons: The Life Sciences report. Crucially, 84% of those surveyed have some degree of sustainability benchmarking in place (Figure 1), and nearly as many rank energy conservation measures among the top two most impactful technologies available (Figure 2). This is the beginning of the zero carbon revolution for our life sciences industry.

Life Sciences sustainability benchmarks 2021 Life Sciences sustainability benchmarks 2021

Figure 1. Does your company have formalized sustainability metrics or benchmarks that it is measuring against?

Energy reduction technology used in Life Sciences 2021 survey Energy reduction technology used in Life Sciences 2021 survey

Figure 2. What technologies would you consider as a means of reducing energy costs and improving environmental impacts?

The notion of “zero carbon” is often interchanged with Zero Net Carbon (ZNC), a popular industry term usually associated with an offsetting strategy. The concept of zero carbon is different, though: It implies that zero means zero, and it sets the expectation that companies will eliminate their emissions altogether, not simply compensate for those emissions elsewhere. A growing number of life science companies have adopted a zero carbon objective as part of their strategy to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal #13, “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Corporate responsibility isn’t the only motivator, though. And that’s what makes this revolution especially interesting: Today’s shift toward zero carbon design is also driven by plain, old-fashioned business sense. Because the cost of fossil fuels is rising, relying on renewable energy sources is becoming a more affordable, accessible and reliable option—and it’s even codified into law, in some regions. As these scales tip, companies that rely on non-renewable energy will soon face a difficult choice: change now or face declining profits.

We’ve written this article for biotech companies interested in migrating toward zero carbon facilities and operations. The journey to sustainability may be complex, but the destination is relatively simple:

  1. Apply best design and construction practices.
  2. Remove all fossil fuels as a primary fuel source.
  3. Provide on-site renewable energy with time-of-use energy storage strategies.
  4. Consume 100% renewable grid electricity.

You have several promising sustainable energy solutions at your disposal to help you meet these objectives, with more emerging all the time. Understanding which ones are best suited to your unique situation and developing a responsible and cost-effective site utilities master plan requires the combined expertise of a diverse and experienced team. As part of such a team, we’re here to help you get started by exploring three of the chief considerations we hear from clients during the initial planning stage of an innovative zero carbon project.

Top considerations when planning a zero carbon project

1. Can I afford a 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. Some regions of the country have already reached an inflection point at which fossil fuels and renewable energy have swapped their traditional places, economically: sustainable energy is more affordable, natural gas less so. No one knows exactly how this will play out in the long term, but it’s becoming clear that the cost of non-renewable energy will continue to rise, which in turn will motivate more companies to invest in facilities designed for renewable alternatives.

Meanwhile, certain forward-thinking city leaders and lawmakers are working fast to make this question of affordability moot. In 2019, Carlsbad became the first city in California to pass an ordinance limiting natural gas in new construction projects. As of late 2021, more than 50 Californian cities and counties are considering similar ordinances, and 49 have formally committed to eliminating gas and pushing for all-electric designs for new construction projects.

This movement to incentivize renewable energy through financial and legal pathways is growing across the country. We can see this in the growing popularity of Community Choice Aggregate (CCA) legislation, which allows cities or counties to buy their electricity in bulk from a private-sector provider. CCA initiatives help to reduce the overall cost of powering a community, and they give local governments the opportunity to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint by supporting clean energy providers in the private sector. Ten states have adopted CCA legislation so far, with many more actively investigating it.

Maze icon for challenging path forward

Potential affordability challenges:

  • Zero carbon capital projects often require significant initial investment.
  • Companies may find it challenging to establish whose budget ought to cover a transition to zero carbon. A new building that depends on a central plant may fall under corporate-level financing, while a building with standalone energy generation may seek sponsorship independently.
Bullseye icon for zero carbon advantages

Potential economic advantages:

  • Lifecycle cost savings could be huge as fossil fuels become more expensive and renewable energy sources become more affordable.
  • When you electrify your heating and cooling systems, you unlock the potential to further optimize your whole plant, increasing your ROI over time. For example, you may no longer need interior chiller and boiler installations, which could free a large section of your facility’s footprint and thereby increase your manufacturing capacity.
  • There are novel ways to offset the cost of a sustainability project, such as a power purchase agreement (PPA) to finance capital investment through a third party. This is a unique advantage for sustainable projects; a financier pays for your rooftop solar photovoltaics, and in return you buy back your electricity at a rate that’s lower than public utilities would charge.

2. Is clean energy technology reliable enough for a zero carbon project?

Equipment vendors see the writing on the walls, too. They’ve begun investing in R&D programs for clean energy technology to serve the life sciences market. The conventional belief that pharma manufacturing is too energy-intensive to rely on fully electrified/decarbonized equipment and systems is no longer true, thanks to these advances, and evident in CRB’s design of a fully-electric biotech manufacturing facility.

But that doesn’t mean that all manufacturers are willing to bet the farm quite yet. It isn’t that the equipment is new and unknown—in fact, some of the core technology that stands to have the greatest impact on energy use has been around for decades. It’s the application that’s revolutionary, and this isn’t just true in the life sciences.

“Model Y heat pump is some of the best engineering I've seen in a while. Team did next-level work.” - Elon Musk on Twitter

You’ll find a prototype for Elon’s Model Y heat pump working inside of your fifteen-year-old refrigerator. What he’s celebrating is the engineering breakthrough required to repurpose existing basic technology for a novel use case, and that’s exactly what’s happening in leading-edge sustainability projects in the life science industry.

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Potential technology challenges:

  • Geography matters. Off-the-shelf clean-energy solutions that have proven themselves in places like California are not necessarily rated for harsher climates. Central plant heat pumps, for example, have not yet advanced to the point where they can sustain the higher grade of heat required in places where winter temperature can plummet below zero.
  • It’s not necessarily the technology that’s vulnerable, but the aging and fragile public grid on which it relies. This is especially true as climate change fuels increasingly violent weather-related events across the country. Just think of the record-setting heat wave that descended on the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2021, or the extreme winter storm in Texas earlier that year, which crippled manufacturers in that state and triggered runaway cost inflation in the affected supply chains. Companies must consider the growing frequency of these disruptive events as they plan their migration away from fossil fuels and towards electrification.
Bullseye icon for zero carbon advantages

Potential technology advantages:

  • With the right experience, 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 our arsenal to help you design a decarbonization plan that’s specific to your site and the needs of your manufacturing process.
  • 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.

3. How do I convince the decision-makers to pursue zero carbon strategies?

A large company is sometimes like a large country. Its population will contain advocates for climate action and positive change, as well as detractors—or, more commonly in our experience, people who simply haven’t yet accessed the information they need in order understand why a shift towards sustainable energy is both imperative and economically rewarding. Finding alignment between so many people across such a broad spectrum 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 the life sciences market under the right circumstances, you may be wondering how to get that message into the hands of those with influence—the ones holding the purse strings, the ones who will select the A&E partners for your zero carbon project, the ones with power to establish a culture of innovation and change. My advice: start with the corporate vision.

It’s increasingly rare to find a company whose corporate vision doesn’t include sustainability targets. What can sometimes happen, though, is a breakdown in translation: ‘corporate’ has formally committed to reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, for example, but that objective hasn’t found its way into the Basis of Design for a new greenfield project inside the corporate ecosystem. We saw this play out in the results of our Horizons survey, which revealed that of our 500 respondents, nearly 60% have a sustainability plan that affects their corporate level, but that number drops by half at the level of individual sites (Figure 3).

2021 Sustainability Plan Life Sciences Survey Metrics - Operations 2021 Sustainability Plan Life Sciences Survey Metrics - Operations

Figure 3. To what level is your company's sustainability plan affecting operations?

Addressing this incompatibility between a company’s vision and its boots-on-the-ground decision-making is a necessary part—perhaps the most necessary part—of designing a sustainable future for life science manufacturing.

Maze icon for challenging path forward

Potential activation challenges:

  • Successfully transitioning to zero carbon is more than a design and construction exercise. It requires a substantial shift in mindset, pushing teams to move from a passive position of “doing less harm” by reducing carbon emissions to an active position of “doing more good” by committing to zero carbon initiatives. 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.
  • Timing can be a challenge: 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; a retrofit costs several times more than proactive planning from the start.
Bullseye icon for zero carbon advantages

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. You have an opportunity right now to position yourself as a pioneer in the industry, and to show the world that you’re making these changes not because you have to, but because your company saw an opportunity to make a difference and build a stronger business.


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.

When you’re ready to discuss your facility’s zero carbon future, call on us.

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