America’s Smartland Series: Regional Best Practice
Gundersen Health System’s Biomass Boiler
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hospitals in the United States are responsible for 5% of the United States’ total energy consumption, which amounts to about 836 trillion BTU’s annually. In 2008, Gundersen Health System set a goal for energy independence and on October 14, 2014, they produced more energy than they consumed for one day. While Gundersen still uses more energy than it produces over the course of a year, full energy independence remains the goal. Gundersen Health System is a not-for-profit physician-led organization headquartered in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They have 50 locations between Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Gundersen’s energy efforts have become such a success they have created Envision, a for-profit energy-consulting arm. Using its own model, Gundersen Envision is now working with other health care systems to promote smarter energy systems.
Gundersen’s energy is produced by use of wind power, methane gas from a local landfill, and a biomass boiler. This biomass boiler uses organic wood fuel from forest residue and mills to create steam. Gundersen also uses state of the art equipment to control the emissions from the biomass boiler and is “the gold standard on emission control” according to Jeff Rich, Executive Director of Gundersen Envision. The steam from the boiler is used for heat in the hospital and other needs such as sterilization, humidification, and running the laundry and kitchen. It is also used in a steam turbine to create energy for the La Crosse Campus. This biomass boiler is responsible for about 40% of Gunderson’s 100% energy independence goal.
The biomass boiler replaced three boilers from the 1970’s that where due for an update. A $225,000 bioenergy grant from the U.S. Forestry Service through the Wisconsin Department of Administration contributed to the project. Gundersen worked with AFS Energy Systems and Wilson Engineering to build the boiler and secure the grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Gundersen estimates they save about $500,000 in electricity and heating costs per year by using the biomass boiler. Gundersen has five local biomass sources within 55 miles and has storage for three days worth of biomass fuel on site. Each year Gundersen will spend about $800,000 on biomass fuel as opposed to around $1,000,000 per year on natural gas.
The Coulee Region, where Gundersen is located, is rich in renewable resources such as wood and recyclables from farms. Gundersen’s energy costs are benefiting the local region by not going to another state or country. “We can make our own home-grown energy in our area and create jobs,” said Rich. “Instead of getting heat from Texas natural gas or coal from Wyoming, we are getting it from wood chips in western Wisconsin.” The wood chips for the biomass boiler are bought from Lambert Forest Products in Warrens and Nelson Hardwood Company in Prairie du Chien. Kent Nelson, co-owner of Nelson Hardwood, said, “Creating a viable chip market close to home means we can spend money on other improvements to the plant instead of trucking costs.”
While Gundersen works to become more energy independent every day, keeping up with the energy required for the growing hospitals is a challenge. The biomass boiler and other equipment experience natural erosion, so keeping the system in good shape is demanding as well. “We are constantly trying to make this better,” explained Rich. “Our goal is to make more clean power than we consume for a full year.” Following the success of Gundersen, Cathy Stepp, the former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, labeled Gundersen as “the poster child for job creation, economic enhancement and environmental protection all at the same time.” Gundersen CEO Dr. Jeff Thompson said that hospitals are starting to work to reduce their impact on the environment in a “thoughtful way that helps lower the cost of health care and improves the local economy.” Gundersen has helped other hospitals increase their energy efficiency to bring energy costs down and start thinking about renewable energy.
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