Gundersen Health Systems Is on a Mission to Remain Energy Independent

by | May 3, 2022

Gundersen Health Systems is a group of hospitals based in Wisconsin. It says that it is energy independent, producing its renewable energy on-site as well as procuring it from producers. It then pairs the energy produced by solar, wind, and biomass with energy efficiency measures. The hospital’s goals are to reduce its energy cost, remain energy independent, and be an environmental steward in the healthcare sector. 

What did it do? 

For example, the Gundersen Lutheran Biomass Boiler is a $6.5 million project with is a 250-kilowatt steam generator. Provide electricity, space, and process heat to Gundersen Lutheran’s La Crosse campus. 

It uses wood chips, representing 38% of Gundersen’s energy independence goal. The boilers create steam, which is captured and reused to heat the building in the winter. It’s also used to dehumidify the air and sanitize medical equipment. 

But it was not always that way. The boilers used to run on fossil fuels. But when the time came to refurbish the boilers, it chose a biomass boiler. 

“The biomass boiler uses clean organic wood fuel sources, such as milling or forest residues,” the University of Wisconsin at Madison, courtesy of WE Energies and Pöyry International Consulting and Engineering. “These woody biomass products are sourced locally and have no paints, glues, or treatments on the wood. The wood product is fed into the system, where it is burned and heats water to create steam used throughout the La Crosse Campus. Gundersen uses state-of-the-art equipment to control emissions.” 

The biomass boiler incorporates a steam turbine, which takes the steam and uses that to turn a motor to make electricity. The University of Wisconsin says it produces enough electricity to power 225 homes a year. 

The biomass boiler is expected to save Gundersen $500,000 a year. Wisconsin Bioenergy supported the project with a grant for $225,000. And there’s more:

— It set up a wind farm in Lewiston, Minnesota, that generates nearly 5 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power 1,200 homes. It did the same in Cashton, Wisconsin, providing enough power to keep 1,200 homes running. 

— Both wind farms feed energy into the power grid, which means that electricity can be used for homes and businesses in nearby communities. The utilities pay the wind farms if they return electricity to the grid. The two wind farms account for roughly 12% of the energy that Gundersen produces for the grid.

“Wind is a natural, clean resource that is underutilized as a power generation source in the United States. It is one of the least expensive ways to produce electricity that exists and it is completely free of emissions, ” says Jeff Rich, Executive Director, Gundersen Envision. 

Healthcare consumers get the benefits of the money saved and the money earned from sending excess electricity to the grid. The hospital network has been independent since 2014. 

The Challenges

According to the JAMA network, hospitals account for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But many smaller hospitals and clinics do not have professional energy management folks on hand to provide expertise. By examining the practices of Gundersen, other medical facilities can learn

Given that hospitals are in the business of generating good health, their energy usage must be conducive to that mission. To that end, fossil fuels can lead to respiratory problems, kidney disease, and cancer. Using cleaner energy can solve that issue. And deploying renewables fits with its goal of being an environmental leader in the communities where it operates. 

“Savings achieved from the wind farms can also go back to patients in the form of lower healthcare costs,” global green hospitals. 

“When Gundersen made the decision to develop a wind farm, partnering with engaged and experienced developers was a priority,” it adds. “They also visited numerous owners and suppliers. During the development phase, Gundersen participated in a rigorous permit and regulatory process and developed various agreements such as a turbine supply agreement, a construction agreement, and an operations and maintenance agreement.” 

It now tracks its progress, ensuring that fossil fuel usage is offset by clean energy consumption. What else? 

— explore power purchase agreements; 

— invest in wind resource studies; 

— consider the cost of electrical interconnections, and 

— compare how reliable manufacturers are and how dependable the services they provide. 

Good advice for any hospital wanting to save energy dollars and leave a smaller environmental footprint.

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