It’s Time for the Health Care Sector to Think Differently about Electric Power

Photo Credit: Damian Bakarcic - The Outskirts

Two decades of devastating weather events have exposed a disturbing reality: the industry we trust to protect our health might be one of the most vulnerable to power outages. Worse still, the health care sector’s electric power choices have made it one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and air quality issues.

When Tropical Storm Allison hit Texas in 2001, it caused $2 billion of damage to a single medical center. In 2003 during the extended Northeast blackout, the largest outage in American history, nearly half of New York City’s hospitals’ emergency generator systems performed unreliably. A decade later, Hurricane Sandy completely shut down six hospitals, forcing 6,400 patients to be evacuated. Some affected facilities remained closed for more than 100 days. Just last year, Hurricane Irma knocked out grid power to more than 200 Florida hospitals and nursing homes, leaving many running on back-up generators with only enough fuel on hand to last a few days.

With health care providers repeatedly challenged in delivering critical care when it is needed most, the sector has come to recognize a need to think differently about the resilience and reliability of its power.

Hurricane Sandy proved a pivotal moment for health care power strategy.  While flooded critical infrastructure and disruption to travel and communications dominated headlines, in the wake of the storm, the City of New York concluded that a lack of emergency power had the greatest impact on health service delivery.  

In New York and elsewhere, the vast majority of health care facilities rely on grid-delivered electric power and diesel-powered electrical generators for back-up. With grid outages due to extreme weather events escalating and diesel generators contributing to the significant environmental impact of the health care sector, it’s time to rethink this energy strategy.

Health Care Sector Power Choices are Impacting Service Delivery and Air Quality

The industry’s back-up system of choice is unreliable. Diesel generators are also bad for the health of the communities health care organizations serve.

According to California’s Bay Area Air Quality Management District, diesel exhaust includes over 40 substances that are listed by the U.S. EPA as hazardous air pollutants. Diesel exhaust can trigger immediate respiratory distress, especially in children, the elderly, and those with asthma and other chronic lung and heart conditions.

Even if you were able to look beyond these significant health concerns, diesel generators should still not be the industry’s “Hail Mary” in an emergency. Mandatory ongoing maintenance and testing help, but diesels remain prone to failure in actual emergencies and oftentimes cannot support full load conditions.

Beyond diesel generators, the sector could be making better choices about sustainability. The health care industry has one of the largest carbon footprints; if the U.S. health care system were considered as a separate country, it would be the seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world. In 2011 alone the industry accounted for about 10% of the carbon dioxide generated in the U.S., emitting 655 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas.

New Power Choices Can Turn the Industry’s Carbon Profile Around

Health care’s most progressive providers are starting to lead the industry into a new era of clean, reliable, affordable electric power.

Earlier this year, nineteen American health care systems affirmed their commitment to the climate change mitigation goals set out in the Paris Agreement. The systems represent 763 hospitals, 784,778 employees, and $167.2 billion in revenue across 39 states.

Kaiser Permanente of California was one of those signatories. It has already made a commitment to becoming carbon net positive by 2025 through its embrace of renewable energy.

Wind and solar power are certainly part of the solution for reducing the carbon footprint of the sector and diminishing negative air quality impacts.

However, the inherent intermittency of renewables means they are unlikely to account for any major facility’s full power load. Additionally, many urban health care facilities have neither the roof space nor the open space to site sufficient renewable power on-site. As a result, most renewable sources of power are located far off and still rely on the grid for delivery, making them as susceptible to outages as any other form of grid power.

This leaves facilities with a couple of options: deploy solar PV locally for partial load coverage and rely on traditional grid power to meet additional load requirements, or couple on-site solar to energy storage to extend its usefulness beyond peak daylight hours.

The former option tends to undermine emissions reductions goals by forcing a continued reliance on less clean grid power. It also eliminates the protection that grid-independent on-site power might provide against grid failure. The latter option is currently impractical due to the high cost profile of batteries.

Combined heat and power (CHP) systems remain one of the most popular power choices for the industry because of the sector’s high demand for both heat and electricity in its facilities. But CHP’s sustainability and reliability credentials are also dubious.

Because of increased energy efficiency through heat capture and utilization, CHP systems combust less fuel per energy output than conventional sources, resulting in lower carbon dioxide emissions. However, the systems still utilize combustion to produce power, which generates nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and particulate emissions that contribute to smog and respiratory health issues. Additionally, CHP systems require entire system shutdowns during maintenance and are subject to forced power outages, ultimately demanding further reliance on interruptible grid power.

Fuel cells such as Bloom Energy Servers are a clean, on-site, resilient electric power source that is gaining momentum in the health care sector. The technology delivers constant and reliable power, and its modular design provides the always-on electricity solution that the sector is seeking to ensure uninterrupted health care services, even when the grid goes down.

In terms of sustainability, fuel cells can reduce carbon emissions by nearly 60% relative to the average U.S. combustion power generator. They also generate electricity via an electrochemical reaction rather than combustion, which means virtually no criteria air pollutants are emitted.

With the technology being implemented at prominent health care facilities across the country including Kaiser Permanente, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and most recently, Partners HealthCare, fuel cells are on track to becoming the energy solution that offers the ideal balance of affordability, resilience, and a lower carbon footprint.

They just might be the health care sector’s key technology for elevating resilience and sustainability in this post-climate change era.