Wisconsin Hospital's Path Toward Energy Independence

HealthLeaders Media Staff, August 11, 2009

Healthcare is not known for being an environmentally friendly industry. It produces a lot of waste, from scalpels and infectious materials to outdated lab equipment and computers. But hospitals are beginning to challenge that perception. And the hospital of the future—whether it's built from the ground up or retrofitted—will be green. Not just because it's good for the environment (that's actually an added bonus), but because it saves money in the long term and makes the most design sense.

I'm not simply referring to using renewable flooring materials, buying food locally, or recycling old computers. That is part of it, but innovative organizations are also looking for ways to reduce IT's carbon footprint, and in the case of LaCrosse, WI-based Gundersen Lutheran Health System, be 100% energy independent. Gundersen plans to be totally powered by renewable energy by Jan. 1, 2014, says CEO Jeff Thompson, MD, referring to the whole system, which is comprised of 42 facilities in 19 counties in three states.

"Our energy spend is a little over $5 million and by spending a little more than $2 million, we will drop our energy spend by 20%," says Thompson, who is a "Design" panelist at the HealthLeaders 09: Hospital of the Future Now conference in October. "We'll get $1 million back, which is a two-year return on that investment."

Gundersen began its movement toward energy independence with a conservation program. The health system performed an energy audit and found immediate savings by refitting equipment, changing speeds of fans, and reevaluating the setup of pumps and air handlers. It is figuring out that for the past 10 years the exhaust fans have been running constantly, but if you turn a switch slightly to a variable speed it can save you $10,000 annually, explains Thompson.

Here's a quick glance at the mix of technology, Gundersen is using on its path towards energy independence.

Electrical power. Gundersen has partnered with City Brewery in LaCrosse to tap the methane created in the brewer's wastewater treatment process, clean the gas, and sell it to a local utility.

Solar power. The health system placed solar panels on its parking garages, which, Thompson does acknowledge, can have a long return on investment—especially in the Midwest versus sunny California.

Wind power. The health system has partnered with Organic Valley, a large consortium of organic farms located about 40 miles away, on a wind project. "Our technical college wants wind turbines to train their students on, so we are all putting in something on that," says Thompson.

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