Sustainability veterans say small teams can make a major difference in energy use.

Hospitals use 2.5 times more energy — and emit more than double the amount of carbon dioxide — than commercial office buildings, according to the Department of Energy. And the Commonwealth Fund has estimated that hospital sustainability initiatives could save the health care industry more than $5 billion over five years.

Yet only about 30 percent of hospitals have a long-term energy management plan, says Cynthia Putnam, a principal in the energy-efficiency consulting firm, Putnam Price Group in Seattle. She works with the four-state Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance to help health care organizations to develop three-year plans to reduce energy consumption. The first step, Putnam says, is to get executive-level commitment.

“It’s important that the leadership supports the effort based on an understanding of the opportunity to save money and improve the comfort level of buildings in which their employees work,” she says.

Health system executives recruit a team that generally includes facilities and procurement leaders along with environmentally concerned clinicians to develop the plan. They benchmark current energy use, set annual goals and determine how to measure and monitor progress.

Putnam helped PeaceHealth, a nine-hospital system serving Washington, Oregon and Alaska, develop a strategic energy management plan that included several concrete objectives:

  • System-wide energy cost control assessments
  • A 10 percent reduction in energy consumption over three years
  • Financial guidelines for energy-management projects
  • A financial commitment to fund cost-effective energy projects
  • Reinvestment of energy savings into energy projects
  • A system to recognize the health system’s top energy efficiency performers each year

Prepare to Succeed

Hospitals don’t need a staff of energy engineers to focus on conservation. Gundersen Health System’s energy costs were rising by about $500,000 a year in 2007 when Jeff Rich, executive director of the system’s Envision program, and his colleagues started using process improvement techniques to identify and remove waste; within six years, Gundersen, based in La Crosse, Wis., is poised to become the nation’s first energy-neutral health system later this year.

“You don’t have to be an energy engineer to make this happen,” he says.

Conduct an Energy Audit

An energy audit provides baseline information on energy consumption and allows hospital leaders to understand how each facility compares with its peers.

“If you benchmark your energy intensity by building type — for hospitals or clinics or office buildings, you can understand where your performance gap is, how much that means in dollars and what it means in environmental and health effects,” Rich says.

PeaceHealth started by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s web-based Energy Star tool to benchmark every building on every campus in three states. “We knew where our baselines were so we studied those buildings that seemed to have low scores to determine how we could best tackle and improve those systems,” says Gary Hall, system director of facilities and construction for PeaceHealth.

The health system hired an engineering firm to evaluate its most energy-intensive buildings and determine a priority list for improvement projects.

Gundersen’s Envision program uses a Lean kaizen (Japanese for “improvement”) approach to conducting an energy audit. A team is brought together for a two- or three-day improvement event, during which energy consumption is measured, opportunities for improvement are identified, and new processes are put into place immediately.

Beaumont Health System, a three-hospital system in the Detroit area, also uses sustainability kaizens. One kaizen Green Team recommended that the majority of the health system’s water fountain chillers be unplugged since water is usually at room temperature when it is consumed. The annual savings is $14,000.

Get Support

As part of its conservation journey, Beaumont joined more than 250 hospitals across the country in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a national campaign to improve the sustainability of health care facilities. Each organization that joins pledges to accept at least one of six challenges; Beaumont chose to pursue all six challenges: reducing energy use, reducing waste and recycling; using safer chemicals; purchasing environmentally preferable products; serving healthier foods; and engaging leadership toward environmental health and sustainability. HHI provides information and technical assistance to help hospitals work on their goals, as well as benchmarking reports and help in tracking progress.

“There is no cost and it is an extreme value to us,” says Kay Winokur, Beaumont’s vice president of quality and professional services. “The only thing they require is that we share information.”

Beaumont also participates in the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Alliance and is considering the Better Buildings Challenge, which asks organizations to commit to reducing energy consumption by 20 percent by the year 2020. “Those two initiatives have really helped challenge us,” Winokur says. “I take these pledges seriously.”

Seize Rebate and Incentive Opportunities

At Adventist Hinsdale Hospital in Illinois, utility consultant Rey Tuazon noticed that the utility bill included a monthly charge of nearly $3,000 for “energy efficiency.” That is what prompted him to find out about the utility’s “Smart Ideas for Your Business Program,” an incentive program that has been a significant support for the hospital’s energy conservation initiatives.

Most electric and gas utilities offer rebates and incentive programs to encourage energy conversation efforts. “The utilities can really be part of the team that makes these projects successful,” Putnam says.

Think Big

Incremental changes — for example, creating a culture in which switching lights off is a shared value — are important. But being satisfied with an incremental improvement in energy consumption is a losing strategy, Rich says.

“The most important thing in setting goals is that it cannot be just a 2 or 3 percent improvement goal,” he says. “It needs to be a transformational goal that requires your organization to change in a way that you are not normally willing to change. It must be a goal that forces you to think about the problem differently. That’s what really drives you.”

For more on the financial benefits of energy efficiency, read Harnessing the Power of Sustainability.

Lola Butcher is a freelance writer in Springfield, Mo.