Last month, I had the amazing opportunity to tour the biomass facility at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’ve been curious about it since learning that seven years ago, they decided to undertake the enormous task of making their entire medical network—over 40 facilities—energy independent.
The tour was conducted by Alan Eber, Manager of Engineering and Energy Management for Gundersen. He stood on the most enormous pile of wood chips I’ve ever seen, housed inside a giant garage across the street from the main hospital campus and said something that made so much sense. He said, “Medical facilities are some of the largest waste producers in the world; how can we promote a mission of health and be some of the biggest polluters at the same time?”
It’s true. Hospitals in the U.S. produce more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually—a figure widely accepted and based on the amount of waste produced per staffed bed per day, which is approximately 33lbs. Alan said that while they were pursuing aggressive recycling and reduction measures, there was still the massive energy consumption and its ties to coal, which has irrefutably negative effects on air and water. So, it was in 2008 that Gundersen made the decision to improve the health of the communities they served and endeavor to cut energy costs at the same time. As Dr. Jeff Thompson, CEO of Gundersen, said, “We did not set out to be the greenest health system. We set out to make the air better for our patients to breathe, control our rising energy costs and help our local economy.”
Alan went on to describe the process they went through. There were lots of trials and errors (he called them “learning experiences”). At each setback, they were able to approach Gundersen’s board and describe their process, admit the failures and successes and get support to continue researching and developing new methods until they found what worked best. This was the part I found most inspiring—the idea that a board of directors of a large medical network would continue to place their trust and funding in their team of engineers until a solution was found. These “failed” experiments weren’t cheap—millions of dollars were spent to get it right. But, the board was committed to the ultimate goal of clean, renewable energy to fuel their organization, so they stood by the research and the researchers.
Ultimately, what proved to be the most efficient was an energy production cocktail, of sorts. Gundersen partnered with Organic Valley Farms and others to expand their wind portfolio and maximize its role in their generation, installed a landfill methane gas recapturing system and tapped into geothermal energy. Then, due to an abundance of local wood waste, they made the decision to install a biomass burner at their main La Crosse campus. On a normal day, about four or five semi-truckloads of woodchips are delivered from a variety of scrap wood suppliers around the local area and dumped into the garage in which we stood. Double that amount is stored for weekends and during times of extreme heat or cold, and the rest is fairly automated. The wood is dropped into a trench that sorts it and feeds it into the burner automatically—kicking on and off depending on the current demand the computer recognizes. The burner is fired at such a high temperature that there is very little ash and no noticeable smell. In fact, we stood for 20 minutes immediately next to the stack and we had no idea it was running. According to Alan, the entire system is monitored daily to assess need and consumption and arrangements are made accordingly to reduce the number of times the temperature is brought down low enough to produce noticeable emissions (as long as the burner stays above a certain heat threshold, there is little ash production).
As fascinating as it was to see how things operated, it was so much more interesting to hear what it has achieved. Since beginning the project in 2008, Gundersen has seen energy efficiency improvements of over 40% and annual savings of almost $2 million from their conservation efforts alone, and they estimate that they’re keeping approximately 475,000 pounds of particulates out of the atmosphere annually. On October 14th of last year, Gunderson achieved complete energy independence for the first time over their entire health system—more energy was generated that day than consumed. Since then, there have been approximately 50 days like that first. “We set our sights on a goal that had never been achieved. And while we are a national leader, we still have work to do,” said Jeff Rich, executive director of Gundersen’s energy subsidiary, Envision®. “We have crossed the threshold to energy independence. It’s like breaking the sound barrier. We were the first to do it and it’s pretty astounding. Our next chapter will be to turn the days into months and years.”
La Crosse is a mere 75 miles from Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, but the work they’ve done on energy independence seems like a light year’s distance. I know that not all of the solutions can be the same—Rochester doesn’t have nearly the wood waste surplus of La Crosse, for one thing. But, if Gunderson Lutheran can pull together the support of their employees, their community and their board to move forward with such an important and impressive accomplishment, certainly the world-renowned Mayo Clinic—beacon of innovation and breakthrough scientific research and development—can do the same.
A recent community survey conducted by Rochester Public Utilites (RPU) showed overwhelming community support for clean, renewable energy options and a desire for the utility to be a “leader” in this area. It’s clear that Mayo would have full community support if they decided to move forward with their own research into ways of becoming more efficient and energy independent, so what remains is to determine where their board stands on committing resources to these ends. As a citizen of Rochester and a great admirer of the Mayo Clinic and all that they have done and do for the world health community, I hope that they take the opportunity that is presented by the Destination Medical Center initiative, the recent public opinion survey done by RPU and their own outstanding reputation for innovation and begin to explore their own pathway to energy independence.