It's hard to imagine any hospital, with its massive demand for round-the-clock power, operating off the grid. But it's happening at one Midwest hospital system.
In October 2014, Gundersen Health System, based in La Crosse, Wis., announced it had reached its goal of energy independence when, for the first time, it produced more energy than it consumed. The system, which operates a large network of hospitals and medical clinics across 19 counties, achieved this by investing in solar, wind, biomass, and waste-to energy projects as well as several other energy efficiency programs.
"We did not set out to be the greenest health system," Dr. Jeff Thompson, Gundersen's CEO, said in a statement when the milestone was announced. "We set out to make the air better for our patients to breathe, control our rising energy costs and help our local economy."
Now, with the industry standard for green energy, Gundersen has created a blueprint for other hospitals. And while hospitals in Central Massachusetts haven't come close to investing in renewable energy infrastructure on the level Gundersen has, they're beginning to think about how green energy can help drive down costs, as well as the carbon footprint.
Hospitals, and the larger systems that often run them, are some of the nation's top consumers of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, health care facilities accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2012, and spent more than $8 billion on energy annually.
Bill Ravanesi, partner at the international nonprofit Health Care Without Harm, is working to change that in Massachusetts. Based in the group's Longmeadow office, Ravanesi is a consultant to Massachusetts hospitals and health care systems under its Health Care Green Building & Energy Program.
As co-director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission's health care working group, Ravanesi helped major Boston hospitals reduce their energy consumption by 6 percent between 2011 and 2013, and commit to reducing greenhouse emissions by more than 25 percent by 2020 through grant-funded green energy initiatives.
"My focus now for the next three to four years is to do the same thing across the state at the smaller hospitals," Ravanesi said.
Ravanesi estimated that hospitals use two-and-a-half times more energy per square foot than any other industry, so when it comes to adopting green (or at least clean) energy, the sector offers lots of potential to gain new ground.
Ravenesi is hosting a roundtable this month on the benefits of adopting combined-heat-and-power (CHP) systems, which are considered alternative energy because they're more efficient than standard systems. The other plus for hospitals is that they generate energy on site, so that when the grid goes down, the systems are still able to deliver 80 percent of the power normally generated.
One local hospital that's investing in a CHP system is Heywood Hospital in Gardner. Ravanesi said Heywood has an "ambitious vision" for renewable energy adoption, which includes the 2-megawatt CHP system as well as a 1-megawatt solar field, which the hospital will soon build on its campus.
Ravanesi said Heywood is aiming to generate a third of its energy from the solar field, and the remaining two-thirds from the CHP system, which will cut energy costs significantly.
According to a spokesman, Heywood currently spends about $2 million a year on energy.
"With the pressures on hospitals to reduce costs, there's not a lot of things they can control, but this is one of the areas they can," Ravanesi said. (Click here to read a column by a Heywood executives on the hospital's efforts.)
Adding to the appeal of reducing spending and becoming "greener" is the fact that Massachusetts is a leader in offering state incentives to adopt CHP and solar energy systems through the Department of Energy Resources, Ravanesi said. The agency's program, Mass Save, provides financial incentives to residential and commercial users that upgrade to energy-efficient power systems.
These incentives have led UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester to zero in on a deal with an investor to build a solar field somewhere in Central Massachusetts that would deliver solar power to its Worcester campuses through the grid. In return, the investor would receive renewable energy incentives from the state, according to Gary Valcourt, associate vice president of facilities for UMass Memorial Medical Center.
Valcourt said that if the agreement goes through (it's still being finalized), the project would save the hospital about $300,000 a year in energy costs, which total about $6 million between the Hahnemann, Memorial and University campuses.
Valcourt noted that money saved through energy investments has a real impact on the hospital's budget. "If we can save $100, $100 goes right to our bottom line," he said.
The medical center, which already uses a "state-of-the-art" CHP system, according to Ravanesi, will no doubt help set the pace for renewable energy investment in the region by virtue of its size. Valcourt said the system recently began working with Health Care Without Harm to evaluate other renewable energy prospects.
UMass Memorial is also working with major consulting firms to determine how to retrofit its facilities, which total around 3 million square feet, for efficiency.
Relieving the energy "bottleneck," which refers to the swell of demand for power in the middle of the day — which can cause delivery problems — is another reason these measures are important, Valcourt said.
To that end, hospitals can make smaller, less expensive changes outside energy infrastructure upgrades (which can be difficult to finance, according to Ravanesi) that can save money and reduce the carbon footprint.
Dr. Amy Collins, an emergency room physician at MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham and Natick, launched a hospital-wide sustainability campaign in 2007 that included energy-saving measures such as the installation of LED lighting, and behavioral changes, such as getting employees to power down their computers at night.
Collins, who now works part time for Health Care Without Harm, said the bigger projects must include a good return on investment to catch the interest of administrators. And she thinks doctors, who know the impacts of carbon emissions on human health, can play an important role in pushing for greener hospitals.
"I think there is gigantic opportunity to engage physicians, because I think physicians have a powerful voice," Collins said.