Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Wisconsin hospital powered by beer and cheese

The Crave Brothers dairy farm in Waterloo, Wisconsin, makes tubs of celebrated mascarpone cheese. Across the state, City Brewery in La Crosse brews millions of cases of winning ales and lagers.

Wisconsin’s Gundersen Lutheran Hospital ... takes biogas produced from cheese whey and brewing waste, as well as landfill methane, and turns it into megawatts of electricity in GE’s Jenbacher engines. The pioneering hospital has been investing in renewable electricity and conservation and has set a goal to become 100 percent energy independent by 2014.

... There are over 1,300 GE Jenbacher gas engines running on biogas installed around the world. They generate more than 6.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

This helps the environment – the landfill and the brewery used to flare off the gas – and it’s also good for business. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates American hospitals spend $5 billion, or at least 15 percent of their profits, on energy costs. [The U.S.'s 8,000 hospitals are 2.5 times more energy and CO2 intensive than office buildings...  CT and MRI scanners, bright lights in the operating room, strict regulations on ventilation and heating--there are lots of reasons why medical facilities are particularly energy-intensive.]
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Bio Digester
The hospital’s Jenbachers, which are part of GE’s ecomagination portfolio, started generating renewable power and heat at the dairy farm and the brewery in 2009. Last week, Gundersen’s 350,000 square-foot clinic in Onalaska became possibly the nation’s first energy-independent medical campus. The clinic gets all the power it needs from yet another Jenbacher burning methane produced by the La Crosse County landfill....

Electricity from biogas and wind now covers about 30 percent of Gundersen’s total power demand. The La Crosse landfill project alone will produce more than $7 million in revenue over the next decade, the hospital estimates. 

The Gundersen Health System has invested in its own landfill gas project, a wind farm, and two bio-gas schemes at a local brewery and a dairy. By 2014, it hopes to be the first energy-independent hospital system in the nation, saving itself hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

The landfill project, in La Crosse County, takes methane that used to be flared off, and converts it to electricity that powers Gundersen’s Onalaska Campus (heat from the engine is also re-used). Gundersen hopes to make at least $7 million over the next decade selling power back to the community.

"Our goal is to show that we can be environmentally sound and improve our finances at the same time," says Jeff Thompson, Gundersen’s CEO. "The landfill requires initial investment, but in six and a half years, it will be completely paid for, and we’ll have several hundred thousand dollars less each year in energy costs." Apart from cost, Thompson says it’s "inconsistent" with the mission of a hospital to use dirtier forms of energy such as coal and heating oil, which are linked with asthma and cardiovascular problems. If the cost of energy skyrockets, it won’t hurt our patients and our community."  

Gundersen considered buying clean energy on the open market, but found it often came at a premium. And Thompson says investing in local-generation energy is a hedge against market price rises.

Before the energy projects, Gundersen also had a $2 million energy efficiency campaign that included switching electric motors, pumps, and lighting for less energy-intensive versions. That push brought in $1 million in savings in its first year. Meanwhile, a new hospital building Gundersen is constructing uses only 40% of the energy of the old one, meaning the energy independence goal is easier to achieve.

Thompson, who was inspired by the book Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, says energy is just one area where the health care industry could save money. He also points to many "one-use devices"--such as anesthesia masks--that he says can easily, and safely, be re-used, rather than always thrown away.

"Instead of $80 new, you can spend $20 to get it re-evaluated, re-conditioned, and re-sterilized. You decrease manufacturing, reduce pressure on the environment, and save the community money."
Gundersen (which, according to Fast Company, is the most energy-efficient hospital in the country) is now meeting at least 30 percent of its power needs with other people’s waste gas. 

"Cheese Lights the Whey: Biogas from Dairy Farm, Brewery and Landfill Turns Wisconsin Hospital into Renewables Powerhouse" 
May 18, 2012
"Wisconsin hospital is powered by beer and cheese" 

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