Go Green to Save Green

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Magazine , May 12, 2009
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Perhaps, but while a move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy has a feel-good quality about it, Garvin and Hanna say their primary motive for going solar is saving money. "It's hard to look at these things just to feel good. Our margins aren't super-duper out here," Garvin says. And while SLVRMC hopes to save about $20,000 this year, Sutter-Auburn expects to break even. The savings is anticipated in future years as the cost of fossil fuels increases.

Net-zero carbon emitter
Perhaps the nation's most ambitious green project in healthcare—or in any sector—is taking place at LaCrosse, WI-based Gunderson Lutheran Health System, a sprawling operation with 42 facilities in 19 counties in three states. Solar power is a limited option in the wool-clouded skies tethered over the Upper Midwest, but the health system is committed to being 100% energy independent and a net-zero carbon emitter by 2014.

Jeff Rich, executive director of efficiency improvement at Gunderson, says the health system's energy costs were rising about $350,000 a year, an expense that was passed on to patients in the form of higher healthcare costs. So one year ago, the health system made its first movement toward energy independence with a conservation program that this year will reduce energy consumption by 20%, or approximately $800,000 in savings from annual systemwide energy costs of between $4.5 million and $5 million.

Rich recommends that cash-strapped hospitals and health systems first look to energy conservation and retro-commissioning buildings to lower their energy costs.

"If you start with conservation, reducing your energy demand, the payoff starts instantly," Rich says, adding that Gunderson's energy audit found immediate savings. "You find systems that are turned on when nobody's in the building. You start going through these things and you find all kinds of stuff that is a bit embarrassing to talk about but everybody's got it," he says.

Gunderson's audit found that hundreds of exhaust fans—some as big as sedans—were running constantly, even when they weren't needed. "In one building we turned eight fans off and scheduled them with controls and saved about $4,500 a year just with those eight fans. And we have in the neighborhood of 300 fans that we have to assess their potential. It's the same thing with lights and air handlers. They don't have to be running 24/7."

Something as simple as flicking a switch off or putting HVAC on a timer might seem obvious, but Rich, who came to Gunderson two and a half years ago with a background in heating and ventilation engineering, says many health systems don't understand the the potential savings. "The challenge in healthcare is that small systems may have limited resources to handle HVAC issues or to know how to put the business case in front of leadership."

Gunderson isn't simply conserving energy; it's creating it. The health system has entered into an agreement with City Brewery in LaCrosse that will tap the methane created in the brewer's wastewater treatment process, clean the gas, and sell it to a local utility. "It won't be going into our systems in most cases. We will send the electricity to the utility or it will be going to other users where it can be consumed and we will be paid for that and it will offset the costs of the energy we consume," Rich says.

The health system's plan for energy independence will also include the use of solar, wind, and hydro power, depending upon what best suits a particular area. Gunderson is considering installing a biomass boiler that could generate 8% of the system's electricity and also create steam to heat and run the sterilizers. Gunderson's energy program is creating new jobs while reducing long-term healthcare costs, and reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. "These are things that President Obama has been talking about and we're hitting all three of them," Rich says.

John Commins is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at jcommins@healthleadersmedia.com.

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