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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Power Shift - Hospitals Go Green to Save Money and Save Lives

Air Date: Week of

Spalding Hospital sits on Boston Harbor in Charlestown. (Photo: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In an effort to reduce climate vulnerability and stabilize energy costs, hospitals nationwide are investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Host Steve Curwood checks out the innovative design of the new Spaulding hospital with John Messervy Director of Capital and Facilities Planning for Partners' HealthCare.


CURWOOD: Generally the best way to reduce carbon pollution and emissions is to use less energy, and the dividends can add up fast for big buildings. Consider the health care sector, which is almost a fifth of the national economy. Hospitals and clinics are the second most intensive users of energy after the food service industry and contribute roughly 8% of US global warming gas emissions. Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm, says it’s no surprise that hospitals use so much energy.

COHEN: Well, they operate 24/7. They have a lot of electronic equipment and they continue to get more electronic equipment. More MRIs, more robotics… all of these are enormous energy users.

CURWOOD: So, we spend one out of five bucks on health care and it's one out of say 12 electrons on health care.

COHEN: That’s why focusing on the healthcare sector as the wedge sector in society to lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a really smart strategy. We need to have health care institutions be models for climate preparedness and climate resiliency so that in an extreme weather event maybe the hospital or the clinic is the one place with reliable power to keep medicines refrigerated because they’re using renewable energy.

It may be the one place in times of extreme flooding that has water filtration so that everyone can get clean water. So we need to rethink hospitals as anchors for healthier communities and not just being centers for disease management.


CURWOOD: On the shore of Boston Harbor, Partners, one of the nation’s leading health care providers, is incorporating conservation and the strategy of climate resilience in the replacement for its Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

And when Partners Healthcare decided to construct the new Spaulding at harbor side, projected sea level rise was part of their design. John Messervy is director of capital and facilities planning at Partners Healthcare.


John Messervy (Photo: Steve Curwood)

MESSERVY: The sea level change is a concern and we responded in a couple of different ways. The ground floor of the building is set approximately 30 inches above the 500 year storm level and that may seem like a low probability of encountering a 500 year storm. In fact we’ve had three 100-year storms in the past couple of decades. So, they are coming.


CURWOOD: As we walk through the construction site up to the nearly completed 8-story building, a massive cluster of generators and other heavy electrical gear on top in a penthouse is visible all the way from the ground.

MESSERVY: We’ve raised most of our sensitive electrical equipment and phone system and generating equipment up to the penthouse. In the name of providing a resilient environment for the continuance of health care services in the middle of a storm that’s what we ended up doing and I think you’ll see more and more hospitals and other buildings following suit. If you’re on the water front you need to protect electronic equipment and otherwise you’re going to be out of business.


CURWOOD: Led by Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital, Partners Healthcare is the largest network of clinicians and hospitals in Eastern Massachusetts. Back in 2008 when energy price hikes blew a 40 million dollar hole in their budget, Partners set a goal of reducing its energy use by 25 percent. They also set about incorporating the latest green building concepts throughout their network and plan to build remote solar farms to help power their system.


CURWOOD: The new Spaulding is being built in Charlestown on land reclaimed from an abandoned boat yard not far from Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship.

MESSERVY: We’re using a lot of the found materials on site. Granite and old ships’ timbers because this after all was a ship building community here in Charlestown so we found a lot of live-oak timbers that are being used both for site furniture and also refinished and being used inside the building.


MESSERVY: Let’s go into the construction trailer, get hard hats then we can go inside the building.

MESSERVY: (Converses with hard hat distributors)… hello… how are you? Fine. Came to get a couple of hard hats. Is that tight enough for you? Let's see here - screw the knob on back and you're all set.

CURWOOD: We step inside the ground floor where workers are putting the finishing touches on a huge atrium that looks out onto a large plaza at the water’s edge.


MESSERVY: The design of the new Spalding took into account a lot of opportunities that we were presented with by the site. It’s essentially out at the end of a peninsula in the Charlestown navy yard. It gets a lot of sun. So we’ve designed the building to be quite thin and long so the sun can penetrate deeply into the space and reduce the amount of artificial light that we need.

CURWOOD: Patients can spend a lot of time in a rehabilitation hospital, and natural light with views of nature have been shown to improve the quality of recovery. We take an elevator see some of the almost finished patient rooms.


CURWOOD: We’re on the 8th floor of this new hospital you’re building, Spalding. And we’re looking out at Boston Harbor, this is an amazing view. I mean this is prime real estate. Hospital, here?

MESSERVY: Well, you know, it’s an interesting story. We wanted to stay in the city of Boston and there are very few sites available in the city these days. This site was available that the city owned and unfortunately it was contaminated. And once we started digging and testing we found a lot of chemicals that we had to remove so let’s say it was a discounted site and we paid for the cleanup. But it was worth it because it is a spectacular view and the patients and staff are going to find this to be a wonderful location for their work and recuperation.

CURWOOD: So, what are the things you do to cut energy in a hospital system?

MESSERVY: Well, some of them are really pretty dumb. You know, it’s turning off heat and air in rooms that are not occupied at different times of the day. And that is producing a significant savings. I’d say 40% of the savings that we’re realizing are coming from reducing temperature and air changes in unoccupied spaces such as operating rooms in particular.

CURWOOD: So, you’re on your way to a 25% reduction in the carbon footprint in the Partner’s Health Care system. What’s that worth in terms of dollars each year?

MESSERVY: For us it’s worth about 16 million dollars to reduce our energy consumption by 25% and we hope to go further than that as we get more involved in renewables and we hope to continue to drive those costs down at the same time as we implement more cogeneration facilities, combined heat and power facilities across the hospitals that will also realize another 25% or so savings over the power that we’re buying now.

Our return is about 3.7 years on the investments we’re making in conservation so they’re very rapid. As our CFO likes to say where else can I invest my money and realize a 27% return?

CURWOOD: So, you’re saving energy. You’re a health care company. How does this help save lives?

MESSERVY: Well, it saves lives by reducing our carbon emissions. In terms of our energy use and our carbon footprint, because we are such a large energy user we are emitting large amounts of particulates. The impact on the population is through conditions such as asthma, emphysema and other conditions. We are indirectly contributing to 10 million dollars worth of health care costs through our carbon emissions.

CURWOOD: And lost lives.

MESSERVY: And lost lives, that’s right.


CURWOOD: John Messervy of Partners Healthcare says construction will continue until the new Spaulding is ready for patients in April of 2013.


CURWOOD: Gary Cohen of Health Care without Harm says sustainable hospitals are a national trend.

COHEN: Hospitals all round the country and around the world are moving towards sustainability as a core business strategy and energy efficiency is one of those core planks. Health Care Without Harm and our membership organization, Practice Green Health, and 12 other hospital systems around the country, have launched a sector-wide initiative called the Healthier Hospital Initiative.

At the moment there are 500 hospitals that are sponsors of this initiative. We’ve been able to recruit another 200 hospitals and our goal is to reach 2,000 hospitals to enroll in the Healthier Hospitals initiative, which would represent one third of all the hospitals in the country. And so we are working with many, many hospitals around the country to have health care lead the movement for a sustainable development within the frame work of their mission to do no harm.

CURWOOD: Gary Cohen of Health Care Without Harm. He says that if you don’t have a clean and green health care facility near you like the new Spaulding, you likely soon will.



Health Care Without Harm

Partners Healthcare Sustainability Plans


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