Environmental Health Checkups: EDF Climate Corps Fellow searches for energy savings in healthcare facilities

EDF Climate Corps fellow | July 7, 2010


By Nick Fassler, 2010 EDF Climate Corps fellow at HCA Healthcare, MBA candidate at the Erb Institute, University of Michigan, Member of Net Impact

This summer, I have taken on a unique role as an EDF Climate Corps fellow at HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading hospital operators. While most of the other 50 EDF Climate Corps fellows will spend the next couple months identifying energy efficiency opportunities in office buildings and data centers, I am the only one that will be working on healthcare facilities.  Upon starting my fellowship, I quickly realized that everything is more complicated in healthcare facilities.

I spent the first week of my fellowship exploring and learning about my new industry. According to the American Hospital Association, there are 5,815 hospitals in the U.S. representing some 951,045 registered hospital beds. The average hospital uses 2.5 times the amount of energy as other commercial buildings, adding up to 836 trillion BTU's or $5 billion annually, based on DOE data. Needless to say, energy efficiency represents a huge opportunity for hospitals and the healthcare industry.

Yet the "low-hanging fruit" of energy efficiency seems a bit further out of reach in an industry that lives and breathes by rules and regulations. Furthermore, it is clear that many beneficial measures have already been taken. In fact, I am not the first person from EDF to work with HCA. Just after I started, it was announced that HCA has saved $4.7M in costs and 32,500 metric tons of GHG emissions as part of the KKR and EDF Green Portfolio partnership program.

When I began looking at lighting retrofits, I realized that some hospitals are using over 100 types of lamps and fixtures to manage lighting requirements in spaces as diverse as operating rooms, radiology rooms and nurseries. And that is on top of the standard office building spaces we learned about during our EDF Climate Corps training. Lighting timers and motion sensors are not easy solutions in buildings with 24-hour operation, not to mention potential issues with safety. You've probably had occupancy sensors turn off the lights while you were still in a bathroom, but imagine that happening in a surgery suite.

HVAC and ventilation also pose a problem. Some municipalities require hospitals to take in 100% outside air, a regulation that makes it much harder to efficiently heat or cool a space. This is especially true considering most of HCA's hospitals are located in the country's warmest climate zones. Maintaining the ventilation for infection control also means constantly monitoring pressure, humidity and air flow. Luckily, the scope of my project this summer does not involve other complex sustainability issues in healthcare, such as figuring out what to do about massive amounts of water use and medical waste.

Continuing my research, I have started to find new reasons for hope. Despite the challenges in energy efficiency for healthcare, I've been impressed by the efforts the industry has recently taken. The Green Guide for Healthcare (GGHC), the current standard in green building practices for hospitals, has been hard at work with the US Green Building Council (USGBC) developing a much-anticipated LEED for Healthcare rating system. Last year, the US Department of Energy got involved by launching the Hospital Energy Alliance, a collaboration of leading hospitals and industry associations to decrease hospital energy consumption. There are also other programs such as ENERGY STAR for Healthcare, nonprofit organizations such as Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm, and conferences like CleanMed.

As I dive in to help find savings throughout HCA's portfolio of more than 160 hospitals and 100 surgery centers, it is becoming increasingly clear that I am fortunate to be the lone fellow working in this exciting industry. The time for energy efficiency in the realm of healthcare has come, and I'm thrilled to be on the forefront.

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This content is cross-posted on Greenbiz.com.