Gundersen Lutheran Hospital Strives for 100% Renewable Energy

by | Jul 30, 2009

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gunderson-energy-projectsWith renewables projects involving wind, solar, biogas and hydrokinetic energy, along with a top-to-bottom review of how it uses energy, Gundersen Lutheran hospital in Wisconsin is one of the leading lights in a revolution in how hospitals approach sustainability.

In February 2008, the hospital set a goal to reduce energy consumption 20 percent by 2009 and to generate 100 percent of its electricity using renewable energy by 2014.

The hospital, based in La Crosse, Wis., is halfway toward its 2009 goal, which amounts to $409,000 in annualized savings, said Jerry Arndt, Senior Vice President of Business Services, adding that the hospital makes upgrades with “one eye on sustainability, and one eye on financials.”

Gundersen Lutheran is gaining notice for its emphasis on energy efficiency, said Clark Reed, Director of the Healthcare Facilities Division, Energy Star, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Gundersen Lutheran is very aggressive in its targets,” Reed said. “We salute them, because they can provide a great example to other hospitals and health care providers.”

The largest health care provider in its area, Gundersen Lutheran has an energy bill of about $6 million a year and an operating margin of 4 percent. Its energy costs have been increasing at a clip of about $350,000 a year.

To Arndt, going for 100 percent energy self-reliance is a no-brainer. “In order to get $6 million off the bottom line, it would take $150 million in revenue growth at 4 percent to get achieve the same bottom line,” he said. As a 501 3C, not for profit, organization, shaving dollars off the bottom line helps the hospital keep from passing on rising costs in other areas.

Getting there

In one of its renewable energy projects, Gundersen Lutheran is partnering with a local brewery on a co-generation project. Methane from the brewery process will be captured to run a biogas Jenbacher engine, which will feed electricity into the grid, which will be credited to the hospital. As for the brewery, heat from the co-gen engine can be used in the brewing process.

To help defray the costs of lighting and ventilating a parking garage, the hospital added solar panels to the garage roof.

But those are just incremental advances. To help the hospital reach its 100 percent goal, Gundersen Lutheran is looking to hydrokinetic and wind power.

Jeff Rich, Executive Director of the hospital, said the hospital, which consumes about 45 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, is making a conscious choice to maximize its return on renewables by identifying local resources that are underutilized.

For instance, an innovative lock and dam project on the Mississippi river may help the hospital tap into 30 million kWh a year in hydrokinetic energy.

“When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the locks, they added an auxillary lock in each dam that has never been used. The project would attach an array of turbines to the lock gates that can generate electricity,” Rich said.

Additionally, a wind project about 30 miles away from the hospital may be in place by end of next year, providing 4 million more kWh annually.

Finally, Gundersen Lutheran plans to replace a natural gas boiler with a biomass boiler. “We don’t have the sun they have out West. We may not have as much wind as other areas, but we have lots of wood in this area,” Rich said.

All forms of renewables are on Gundersen Lutheran’s radar screen, Arndt said, adding that the hospital will not stop at its 100 percent goal.

“In order to make our energy bill truly go to zero, we have to go beyond 100 percent, because there will always be costs involved in achieving the goal,” he said. “You have to go to 150-200 percent.”

Smaller hospitals like Gundersen Lutheran represent 85 percent of health care facilities in the U.S., said Arndt, who represents the interests of smaller health care facilities from his position on the Department of Energy’s hospital energy alliance subcommittee.

Arndt recommends that all health care organizations make a move toward energy efficiency and self-reliance.

“This is something that organizations can control, as opposed to other costs of running a hospital,” he said. “To leave $6 million in savings on the table is about as irresponsible as you can get.”

This is Part 4 of a series on health care facilities and energy efficiency. Please refer to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 5.

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