This Hospital System Now Produces More Energy Than It Consumes

CREDIT: Gundersen Health System/screenshot

Workers install solar panels on Gundersen's Onalaska, WI renal dialysis center.

Six years ago, Wisconsin’s Gundersen Health System set a goal to reduce energy consumption and rely more on renewable energy. On October 14, Gundersen, which makes up a network of hospitals, medical clinics, nursing homes and other health facilities, did more than reach that goal — it successfully produced more energy than it consumed, a milestone it’s kept up every day since the 14th.

The health system, which is the first of its kind to become fully energy independent, announced the success of its environmental and efficiency efforts on Monday. In its quest to achieve energy independence, Gundersen has saved nearly $2 million each year from energy conservation and efficiency efforts.

“We did not set out to be the greenest health system,” Gundersen CEO Jeff Thompson said in a statement. “We set out to make the air better for our patients to breathe, control our rising energy costs and help our local economy. We believe we have made more progress on all three than anyone else in the country.”

Gundersen relies on a variety of local energy sources and efficiency measures in order to produce its energy. Last year, the health care system’s main campus began running a 800-horsepower biomass boiler, which burns wood chips from local suppliers to produce energy and is expected to save the health system $500,000 a year. Gundersen is also getting energy from a local landfill; the landfill produces a gas that contains methane, which is captured and pumped to a Gundersen campus for use as an energy source.

Gundersen also had solar panels installed on one of its parking decks and has helped build two local wind farms that combined produce enough energy to power 2,600 homes. The health system also uses the methane captured from the manure of 2,000 cows on three Wisconsin farms to help power its generators. The health system sells the electricity as well as the manure — which can be used as compost, bedding and fertilizer — making $2 million each year.

But the health system hasn’t just focused on energy production — it’s also taken steps to reduce waste. Hospitals, which rely on a variety of one-use items such as syringes and sample cups, produce 5.9 million tons of waste each year, making waste reduction a critical part of any hospital’s sustainability efforts. Gundersen has reduced its hazardous and pharmaceutical waste production by 40 percent since 2010. It’s also outlawed styrofoam and has reduced its food waste by 70 percent by training staff to use nearly all parts of vegetables and by donating leftover food to the Salvation Army.

Gundersen relied on savings and government grants to complete its sustainability projects, and according to Jeff Rich, executive director of Gundersen’s environmental program, the health system only invested in projects that were “two-sided green — green for the environment and green for finances.” The health system also relied on local partners, such as Wisconsin-based dairy company Organic Valley, which partnered with the health system to develop one of the local wind farms.

Reaching energy independence isn’t easy for any building, but it’s especially challenging for hospitals, which can use up to two and a half times as much energy as commercial buildings, due to high tech machinery that often needs to be kept on 24-hours a day. As extreme weather and sea level rise start to pose a major risk for hospitals, however, many are taking steps to become more efficient and more resilient to the impacts of climate change. About 200 hospitals across the U.S. use cogeneration, a cost-effective and efficient power strategy that captures heat from the energy generation process and turns it into more energy. Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, MA, which opened last year, has a ground floor that’s raised 30 inches above the 500-year flood level and 42 inches above the 100-year flood level, in order to help the hospital withstand sea level rise. The landscaping that surrounds the hospital helps protect it from storm surge, and its electrical equipment is on the roof, not the basement, which is susceptible to flooding. And Maine’s York Hospital gets 100 percent of its energy from local, renewable sources.