In August 2021, the Port of Long Beach made history after it completed a major project to electrify a container terminal at Middle Harbor in California — the Long Beach Container Terminal. For perspective, the Port of Long Beach is the second-busiest container port in the United States, and this multiyear approach to redevelop and decarbonize the port's operations sent shockwaves across the industry, as the project lasted a decade.
As ongoing supply chain troubles continue, brought about by what seems to be one too many "once-in-a-generation" moments — COVID-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine, to name a couple — I thought it would be interesting to see how this once deemed "greenest terminal on the planet" was faring during these historic times. Was its focus on sustainability putting it at a disadvantage compared to other terminals?
Long Beach Container Terminal is roughly 300 acres in size and is capable of handling 3.3 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) — the standard container measurement — per year. The redesign project split over several phases, with the Terminal’s first redesign phase ending in 2016. As the Terminal opened up the finished portion, crews continued working on phases two and three, finishing in August 2021.
The rest of the country is operating on a model that is 50 years old.
To understand more about the Terminal’s operations, I sat down with Anthony Otto, chief executive officer. "Where we are now, we’re as close to zero emissions as possible and we are working towards true net-zero emissions as quickly as we can, and can honestly state and back up that we are the cleanest container terminal in the world at the moment," Otto said. "The rest of the country is operating on a model that is 50 years old."
So what’s unique and exciting about Long Beach Container Terminal that makes it more efficient, more sustainable and ensures it stands out above the rest? This list is not exhaustive, but captures some reasons that stood out to me:
- The Terminal has about 100 all-electric automated rail-mounted cranes and 72 electric automatic stacking cranes.
- All-electric, zero-emission, battery-powered autonomous vehicles, with battery swapping technology, move containers throughout the facility.
- All the buildings are LEED Gold certified.
- All the ships plug into shore power instead of using onboard diesel engines.
- The Terminal is working with the local utility provider, Southern California Edison, to show support for decarbonizing the grid by 2045 all while being heavily invested in California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
- The Terminal purchases renewable energy credits for its electricity usage.
- Everything runs off a series of software that improves efficiency and "allows for better thought process, handoffs and equipment management all while diminishing safety issues and redundancies that exist in the old manual model for running a terminal," Otto said.
Where we are now, we’re as close to zero emissions as possible and we are working towards true net-zero emissions as quickly as we can, and can honestly state and back up that we are the cleanest container terminal in the world at the moment.
While the majority of the Terminal is electric, roughly a small portion of forklifts and 60-yard tractors remain, attributing to 92 percent of the on-ground diesel-based emissions. The Terminal is planning on turning those over to zero-emission before 2030 by leveraging funds from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Otto’s comments comparing "the old model" compared with this autonomous and electric one stood out to me. "The traditional model is a longshoreman driving diesel-powered trucks, diesel-powered cranes and in a fully manual environment." This manual process "mixes with over-the-road trucks that are trying to be processed in and out of the facility through the gate, along with on-dock rail, all mixing with diesel-powered equipment … We have designed this facility to be 180 degrees different."
This 180-degree turn to a more sustainable and efficient operation has allowed the Long Beach Container Terminal to weather ongoing supply chain issues and actually thrive. "If there was ever a time in which this technology and design would function right, it is now. By any measurement, we have outperformed any other terminal in this country, whether vessel productivity, how quick we can move the ships, how quick we can move on dock rail freight through our facility onto a rail car to its final destination or in and out of our gate with road truckers," Otto said. "The traditional model generally supports about 5,000-6,000 TEUs per acre per year, whereas our model does more than twice that — roughly 13,000-14,000 TEUs per acre per year."