Why a pediatric provider is investing millions in a microgrid
Todd Suntrapak, president and CEO, Valley Children's Healthcare
BY MARI DEVEREAUX
Valley Children’s Healthcare, a pediatric care provider in Madera, California, announced plans in April to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by installing a massive renewable energy microgrid. Todd Suntrapak, president and CEO of Valley Children’s, discussed the system’s environmental strategy and why he feels such work is important for health systems to take on.
Earlier this year, you released a set of goals for the health system, including plans to build energy resiliency across hospital operations and improve regional air quality. Why focus on some of these issues, and why now?
It’s an energy strategy for our organization that we felt was most consistent with both our operating needs and broader responsibility, since we deal in the future of children. Our work is to preserve, protect and enable the future of kids and their health. This will reduce our greenhouse gas by just over 50%, and we’ll meet 80% of the energy needs in our main hospital over time [through the renewable energy source microgrid.] That reduction on impact to the environment cannot be overstated enough, but it’s not an endpoint for us. We will continue to fine-tune our strategy and investments over time to make sure that our greenhouse gas impact is even more severely curtailed.
How will the microgrid work in practice at the health system?
It will include a 1.3-megawatt solar array, a 1.4-megawatt battery energy storage system and a 2.2- megawatt fuel cell strategy. The solar array and battery storage will be on a part of our campus that is away from patients, families and operations, and that will take up a better part of 40 acres. The fuel cells, because they will play a key role in meeting our energy needs, will be adjacent to our central plant. Thankfully, we will have those in time to meet our safe harbor requirements as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is a key component to our ability to do this in a very efficient, cost-effective manner. Substantial completion is anticipated by February 2025.
How much will the microgrid cost?
Not counting the property we already own—just looking at the solar array, battery, fuel cells and switchgear—this is about a $30 million investment.
Part of your strategy involves conserving water to support the campus amid drought-like conditions in California. How are you using reserves and recharge basins to support your sustainability efforts?
We have quite a bit of water banked up in excess of our needs. We wanted to make sure that no matter what demands were placed on the organization, that we would be able to meet whatever requirements [pediatric patients] had in the long term, and we didn’t want water to be the regulator. We think that is smart to help us continue to replenish the water table and to get to a 1-to-1 ratio of what’s used and what’s put back.
We’ve invested millions of dollars in creating a track and walkway feature around those pond basins, which are visited by various migrating flying wildlife as well as the families and kids that visit us, and by the communities that we serve.
What are other initiatives you’re working on related to reducing water consumption across the health system?
Whether it is using super-efficient toilets in our restrooms, or looking at our landscaping, we are investing at least $11.6 million in redesign and updates. At one point we had acres of cultivated grass—we now have very little of that left, and our plans are to remove all of it. We’re planting a blend of trees, shrubs and perennials that are either native to the area or that excel with very little water consumption.
Valley Children’s is also working on implementing more sustainable food practices. What does this look like on a regular basis?
We are learning every quarter [about] the food deserts that exist in many of the communities that we serve. We have partnered with a number of large-scale growers from the central part of California to get fresh fruits and vegetables to anybody who’s food insecure. Sometimes it’s easier to secure the donations for those foods than it is to have [them used] by those that need them, because folks don’t know what to do with fresh fruits and vegetables or how to prepare them. We’re now partnering with a local ministry to have a demonstration kitchen and activities to teach people, especially young people, “How do you create something from sustainable foods that tastes good?”
How is the system mitigating food waste associated with its activities?
We are connected with different nonprofit organizations that provide shelter and support different populations. Any food we have here that can’t be used elsewhere, we will truck it over and deliver it. Sometimes that even includes prepared food. If we have an outside organization that is sponsoring an event here at our conference center, and they’ve got 400 lunch box lunches for the crowd and only 280 people show up, we will transport that [leftover] food to any one of these nonprofits. It doesn’t happen all the time, but if we have some produce that’s here at the main site, and we know we’re not going to be able to use it all, we give it to staff, families and patients.
How realistic do you think your goals are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?
I think they’re very achievable, and I don’t believe it’s going to take us until 2050 to do that. I think we’re going to be at net zero by 2035, and we will calibrate all our planning and activities to try and achieve that. No part of our strategy is contingent upon the purchase of carbon credits from another country. That would not translate to us truly moving the needle.
What advice do you have for other health systems looking to reduce their own emissions and establish more sustainable, environmentally conscious practices?
For us, the great lesson was, “We need to have an overarching strategy so that we can set an end goal to get to net zero on a certain timeline and pull apart the steps that we need to take to get there.” So what I would offer, more than anything else, is to take the time to do a deep dive on what your energy strategy should be in the long term.
Why is it important for hospitals to be involved in this work?
This is an area where healthcare leaders are almost uniquely positioned to lead the way, because so much of what we do is focused on innovating and quality improvement. We could help others learn what is possible, and that’s only going to help all the communities that we serve across the country as healthcare providers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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