When it comes to sustainability work, making friends with your utility provider is key. Just ask HealthPartners.
Every year, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, the dominant utility where the not-for-profit system operates in Minnesota, helps HealthPartners identify ways to lower its natural gas and electricity usage. Last year alone, the system installed projects that will save about $152,000 annually, said Dana Slade, the system's director of sustainability solutions. On top of that, Xcel gives rebates for reduced energy demand.
"We have completed projects that we may not have otherwise done in the time frame we did them as a result of the incentives our utilities have for us," Slade said. "Xcel's incentives are some of the best in the country."
That's because Minnesota lawmakers over the years have set aggressive standards that require utilities to invest in energy savings and renewables. The state's governor has even proposed requiring utilities use only carbon-free energy resources by 2040.
A newly updated cafeteria at a HealthPartners hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn., showcases a suite of efficiency features, some of which are hidden behind walls and in ceilings. The system is also running a "Greening the OR" project that includes installing "smart" building systems that conditions rooms less when they're not in use, sending liquid waste to a sanitary sewer, buying more reusable supplies and reprocessing single-use devices.
Across the border in Wisconsin, Gundersen Health System in June marked the milestone of officially having recouped its $40 million in energy efficiency investments since 2008. Savings moving forward will be net positive, said Alan Eber, the not-for-profit system's director of facility operations.
Hallmarks of Gundersen's work include a tri-generation project that uses methane from a local landfill to produce electricity. Then it uses the byproduct of that to heat its facilities instead of natural gas, and then chilled water from that heat using what's known as an absorption chiller. The system also has four windmills and solar panels on more than a dozen of its buildings, including hospitals, clinics and parking ramps.
Like HealthPartners, Gundersen is also focused on its ORs, which require more frequent air changes and higher air pressure than other parts of the hospital. When the rooms aren't in use, the system turns down the air changers, lowering their energy use.
Gundersen has also opted to fund the work internally, albeit with help from state and federal grants. It was a risk and a significant investment, but Eber said it's the right thing to do from a mission standpoint, especially as a healthcare provider. Now that the system has recouped its investments, it's poised to start reaping savings.
"We've paid back that college debt, so to speak, and now we're poised to accelerate on that initial investment," Eber said.
Another system that's chosen to go it alone is Providence, a system with 52 hospitals and more than 2 million health plan members.
The Renton, Wash.-based system has used what's known as a green revolving fund—a method touted by the Energy Department—that involves funneling energy efficiency savings back to an account that funds future energy projects. Providence draws more than $25 billion in annual revenue, but it has operated on slim or negative operating margins in recent years.
Those internal funds can be managed in different ways—a centralized fund that hospitals apply for or a division of the facilities department, for example, said Maria Vargas, who directs the Energy Department's Better Buildings initiative.
A big focus area for Providence is its purchased goods and services, which account for 40% of its carbon footprint, said Ali Santore, the system's chief advocacy officer. Providence only uses vendors that meet its environmentally preferred purchasing policy, which includes transparency into their footprint.
The system has also cut anesthetic gas emissions by 80% by switching out the agents used, a change that also saves $500,000 annually.
In a system as big as Providence, sustainability can't just be unplugging computers and turning off lights, Santore said. It involves emissions, recycling, procurement and waste reduction.
"Environmental sustainability is never a side hustle," she said. "It's something that is embedded in the ethos of our organization."