By Clark Reed
Helping a hospital become more energy efficient is a lot like helping patients lose excess weight.
It can be a bit daunting at first but ultimately puts the hospital in a better place — more financially healthy, resilient, and environmentally sustainable. No hospital becomes energy efficient by accident. Even though building technologies like lighting are more efficient today and building codes are better, hospitals are highly complex buildings. Energy savings are not automatic. Efficient equipment can be oversized, poorly maintained, or installed improperly and not deliver the savings. That’s why hospitals that save energy create a culture around saving it. It’s not just a job for facility operations. It’s everyone’s job — from environmental services, to clinicians, to the administration.
Benchmarking is first step
Up to 30% of energy is used unnecessarily in buildings. For energy-intensive buildings like hospitals, that energy waste can translate into millions of dollars lost every year that could otherwise go to providing more healthcare services. To learn how hospitals compare to themselves over time or to their peers across the country, hospitals benchmark their energy performance. Benchmarking is a monthly activity that also offers direct feedback into the effectiveness of energy-saving activities. It allows facility managers to verify savings from energy projects, to be notified of failing systems that cause a spike in energy use, or to track progress toward an energy goal.
65% of hospitals measure and track their energy in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager®, a free online tool created by the U.S. EPA and used by thousands of organizations to benchmark their buildings’ energy and water consumption. Hospitals use Portfolio Manager to generate a 1 to 100 ENERGY STAR score that compares their energy use to other, similar hospitals nationwide. A score of 50 indicates the median level of energy performance while lower scores indicate varying degrees of energy waste and inefficiency.
The most energy efficient buildings in the U.S. can earn ENERGY STAR certification just like consumer products for scores of 75 or higher, meaning that they perform better than 75% of similar buildings nationwide. ENERGY STAR certified buildings consistently use, on average, 35% less energy than their peers and emit approximately 35% less carbon dioxide. To date, over 37,000 buildings have earned ENERGY STAR certification, including 342 hospitals, 211 medical offices, and 271 senior living communities.
ENERGY STAR certified healthcare facilities don’t achieve extraordinary savings by applying special knowledge unknown to the rest of the industry. Rather, they put into practice a structured approach to energy management: improving operations of existing equipment, changing occupant behavior, and upgrading to new, more efficient equipment when it makes sense.
Fix what you have first
A building is like a treasure chest. The savings it hides can make you wealthy, but you must find it first. That’s why hospitals have begun to conduct Energy Treasure Hunts. These two-day events engage teams of energy treasure hunters who fan out across the hospital to look for easy energy saving opportunities.
They might find lights, computers, and other equipment that have been left on in unoccupied spaces. They may find HVAC systems that have been left running or HVAC operations beyond standard temperature setpoints; lighting that is too bright, not effi¬cient, or not directed to necessary tasks. Teams often strike gold. OSF Healthcare and Atrium Health identified $350,000 in savings from operational changes in existing equipment and small capital projects like lighting upgrades. Most of the projects had paybacks of under one year and some even had instant paybacks by reducing airflow in unoccupied areas from an HVAC system that formerly operated 24/7/365.
While the main purpose of an Energy Treasure Hunt is to identify opportunities to use energy efficiently, the longer-term value is culture change. These events begin a behavioral shift in how the hospital thinks about energy use. Rather than as a fixed cost of doing business, energy is thought of as a variable cost to be controlled that can save not only millions of dollars but also provide a pathway to demonstrate environmental leadership.
Teamwork is essential; all employees are invited to identify opportunities to reduce energy use. Their involvement helps create a sense of responsibility for the solutions and sparks employee ownership of energy-saving strategies. Once institutionalized, energy management becomes part of the culture and organizational health of the hospital.
Healthcare systems interested in improving the energy efficiency of their hospitals can join the voluntary U.S. EPA ENERGY STAR program. In 2018, the ENERGY STAR program for commercial buildings helped businesses and organizations save 190 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, avoid $12 billion in energy costs, and achieve 140 million metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions.
About the author: Clark Reed serves as a national program manager for ENERGY STAR at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he works with commercial building partners to identify energy opportunities, promote energy efficiency best practices, and recognize top-performing buildings. He managed EPA’s efforts to establish ENERGY STAR scores for hospitals, medical offices, senior living communities, and most recently, hotels.