CT and MRI scanners, bright lights in the operating room, strict regulations on ventilation and heating—there are lots of reasons why medical facilities are particularly energy-intensive. And it’s no wonder that the U.S.'s 8,000 hospitals use 2.5 times the power, and release 2.5 times the CO2, of other commercial buildings.
Still, it’s a fair bet the health care industry could be more energy efficient (and more efficient in general). And it’s a fair bet also that administrators could learn from one Midwestern hospital system that has dramatically reduced its energy consumption, and is making extra cash by generating its own energy.
Based in La Crosse, Wisconsin the Gundersen Health System has invested in its own landfill gas project, a wind farm, and two bio-gas schemes at a local brewery and a dairy. By 2014, it hopes to be the first energy-independent hospital system in the nation, saving itself hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
The landfill project, in La Crosse County, takes methane that used to be flared off, and converts it to electricity that powers Gundersen’s Onalaska Campus (heat from the engine is also re-used). Gundersen hopes to make at least $7 million over the next decade selling power back to the community.
"Our goal is to show that we can be environmentally sound and improve our finances at the same time," says Jeff Thompson, Gundersen’s CEO. "The landfill requires initial investment, but in six and a half years, it will be completely paid for, and we’ll have several hundred thousand dollars less each year in energy costs."
Apart from cost, Thompson says it’s "inconsistent" with the mission of a hospital to use dirtier forms of energy such as coal and heating oil, which are linked with asthma and cardiovascular problems.
Gundersen considered buying clean energy on the open market, but found it often came at a premium. And Thompson says investing in local-generation energy is a hedge against market price rises.
"My goal is to deliver a source of energy that we can also make money on. But we also believe that it’s a risk mitigation. If the cost of energy skyrockets, it won’t hurt our patients and our community. We believe we’re lowering the cost of health care by doing this."
Before the energy projects, Gundersen also had a $2 million energy efficiency campaign that included switching electric motors, pumps, and lighting for less energy-intensive versions. That push brought in $1 million in savings in its first year. Meanwhile, a new hospital building Gundersen is constructing uses only 40% of the energy of the old one, meaning the energy independence goal is easier to achieve.
Thompson, who was inspired by the book Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, says energy is just one area where the health care industry could save money. He also points to many "one-use devices"—such as anesthesia masks—that he says can easily, and safely, be re-used, rather than always thrown away.
"Instead of $80 new, you can spend $20 to get it re-evaluated, re-conditioned, and re-sterilized. You decrease manufacturing, reduce pressure on the environment, and save the community money."
Doesn’t sound like brain surgery.