Fifteen years ago, Alan Eber watched from his car window as excess methane from the La Crosse County landfill was ignited into a five-foot flame. An engineer by trade, Eber knew he could use the natural gas at Gundersen Health System’s nearby campus in Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“When you're driving down the interstate and see a large flame come out of a stack, you think to yourself, ‘Man, there must be energy there somehow,’” said Eber, director of Gundersen Envision, a for-profit subsidiary of the La Crosse-based seven-hospital nonprofit organization focused on sustainability.
Eber worked with the landfill to ink an agreement to purchase and pump excess methane from the site to Onalaska. The county provided $1.5 million to construct the piping for the project, and Gundersen contributed $2.5 million.
The health system converts the methane received from the landfill into electricity, which it then sells back to its utility provider, Xcel Energy. Gundersen uses the heat created as a byproduct of the conversion process for the four clinical facilities on the Onalaska campus. In 2014, two years after the project went live, Gundersen said it had offset its fossil fuel use through locally produced energy.
Two years later, the health system installed an absorption chiller that uses some of the generated heat to chill water, used in turn to cool Gundersen's data center.
“You add heat and get cold out of it. It's kind of a crime against nature,” Eber said.
The entire setup saves Gundersen approximately $800,000 in annual energy costs.
Gundersen has now partnered with Xcel Energy to design a microgrid on the Onalaska campus, which will allow the provider organization to retain the electricity it creates rather than sell it back to the Minneapolis-based utility company. Operating its own power grid gives Gundersen more options in case extreme weather, wildfire or other natural disaster hobbles Xcel’s grid, Eber said.
Eber said he was unsure how much the project will cost to construct, but he anticipates it will be finalized by early 2025.
“My favorite thing about a lot of these projects that we do is, it takes money and puts it right back into the community,” he said. “Instead of buying natural gas from Texas, or one of the Dakotas, the money's going right back into our community, which is the biggest gain on it. It's more focused here.”