Can Hospitals Operate Solely on Renewable Energy?

While big oil companies fight to keep their hold on consumers, sustainability is the future of energy. Each year, large corporations are the primary contributors to climate change as they manufacture goods driven by American consumption. As pressure rises for companies to switch to renewable energy sources, many big companies are transitioning to sustainable operations.

When experts consider the number of carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere every year, they often overlook the role hospitals and the healthcare industry has played in climate change, contributing at least 10 percent of the annual carbon emissions created in the United States. Big tech has shown it can go fully renewable, but what about hospitals, where the energy dependence could be a matter of life and death?

Is Renewable Energy in the Best Interest of Hospitals?

Before determining if hospitals can transition to 100 percent renewable energy, it must first be determined if switching to renewable energy is in the hospital’s best interest. After all, a hospital doesn’t manufacture or create goods.

A hospital’s primary purpose is to provide care to people. If it’s simply caring for people, where is its energy coming from? Hospitals are essentially a temporary home for their residents. They can have hundreds of residents, and thousands for larger hospitals, at any given time. All of those residents must eat, have entertainment, receive monitoring, and have light.

The hospital kitchen makes up over 10 percent of a hospital’s energy usage. Ventilation makes up another 20 percent required to keep the air clean and free of pathogens. Another 20 percent can be attributed to cooling and heating, and other areas include lighting, computing, and refrigeration.

With a hospital using so much energy, the question shouldn’t be if renewable energy is in the hospital’s best interest, but if renewable energy is in the best interest of the community and the environment. The easy answer is, yes, it is, and hospitals have many options for receiving renewable energy.

300 sl alternative energy blue sky clouds Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

The Different Sources of Clean Energy

With the best solar panels and backup solar battery supply, a hospital would have a stable and reliable clean energy source.  As much as hospitals use energy, such as lighting, heat, air, and the power required for all the medical equipment, their energy expenses would be greatly reduced while also becoming stable, with the only required expense being maintenance.

Solar panels are manufactured so that they can last anywhere from 25 to 30 years. While this is a long time, they do require maintenance. Solar panels require that debris is removed by rinsing the panels. Also, panels can become damaged in severe weather.

However, the benefits of solar energy far outweigh their maintenance requirements. A solar energy system can pay for itself in as little as seven years, leaving the remaining 20 years, give or take a few years, and abundant two decades of minimal energy expenses.

Wind energy is also an available option for hospitals. Wind turbines can easily be installed on hospital grounds, including parking spaces where they take up little room. Most people aren’t yet aware of the benefits of geothermal energy. Used in a hospital setting can reduce the hospital’s energy use by up to 40 percent.

geothermal system uses underground pipes to tap into the earth’s natural heat. Water runs through the pipes and becomes heated as it travels underground, bringing warm water to a heat pump. The heat is then removed from the pump, warm, and distributed throughout a building.

Setting up a renewable energy power source requires a somewhat large upfront investment, but it is quickly diminished once the need for fossil fuels has been removed. This provides the hospital with funds they can use elsewhere, including investing in better technology and giving back to the community through reduced costs and university grants.

A major benefit of hospitals switching to renewable energy is the improvement of the environment. With renewable energy sources, hospitals will leave a lower carbon footprint and no longer contribute to depleting natural resources.

Public health will also be improved once 10 percent of emissions have been removed from the air people breathe. This will reduce the risk of respiratory-related illnesses and cancers. With improved public health, the cost of health care will also be reduced.

Why Renewable Energy Could Be a Problem

For many companies who have made the switch to renewable energy, an issue often faced is the inability to produce enough energy. Getting enough energy for such a large infrastructure may not be as feasible as utilizing the greater and more expedient fossil fuel power.

Another factor to consider is the weather. If there is a stream of cloudy days, power from a solar panel system will be greatly impacted. If the hospital is utilizing wind energy, then a lack of wind also presents a problem. Hospitals require massive amounts of energy to operate efficiently. To ensure they could retain power through a week of stormy weather would require the largest solar battery storage—a likely uneconomical option.

Another factor to consider is the initial cost which can be quite substantial for a building the size of a hospital. While hospitals come in different sizes, this would seem a daunting, if not impossible, task for the largest hospitals.

What if Hospitals Combined Sources

If one of the only drawbacks to switching to 100 percent renewable energy is hindering the weather, the solution would be to power the hospital utilizing more than one power source. A hospital could use solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric to power its large structures.

In combination with a geothermal system, a hospital could use wind and solar power for lighting and electricity, leaving devices that would normally utilize natural gas connected to the geothermal system. A geothermal system is also capable of providing cool air. It actually works in the reverse of how it provides for heat. The earth below the frost line is a consistent temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The geothermal system intakes the warm air from the structure and then replaces it with the cool air from deep below the earth. The warm air is essentially absorbed as it travels underground.

So, not only does the geothermal system take care of hot water and heating needs, but it also cools during the summer. This takes a lot of the power requirements of the solar or wind power system the building also utilizes, thus reducing battery storage.

While many people are concerned about the coal used to power a geothermal system, which would create some carbon footprint, the geothermal system could be powered by solar panels, making it an immaculate and renewable energy source. Geothermal and rooftop solar are actually well-suited to work together.

Combining wind and solar power also takes away some of the risks associated with weather issues. If the day is cloudy, it’s likely to have wind. When the day is sunny, it could be devoid of wind. By having a solar power system and a wind turbine system on-site, the hospital is covered in either situation.

If the weather is producing little wind or sun, which is unlikely to happen often, that’s when the backup battery system will need to have enough power to carry the hospital for at least several days. With the geothermal system taking care of the heating and cooling, some of the burdens of the major power users are taken off the battery storage.

The first off shore wind farm in the USA went online May 1st 2017 in block Island RI. Photo by Shaun Dakin on Unsplash

What About Water?

Technically, water can be a sustainable and renewable resource. Realistically, it has many challenges, and many experts will state that eventually, water reaches a point where it is no longer renewable. With the amount of available drinking water dwindling over time, albeit so slowly it won’t be noticed in this lifetime, it would benefit the population to improve its ability to recycle water.

So, how could a hospital use renewable water? It’s simple by harvesting rainwater from its roofs, stormwater, and reclaimed wastewater. When rainwater is harvested, it is collected from rooftops and other surfaces and then stored. Harvested rainwater can be used for various needs, including irrigation for landscaping, laundry, and restroom toilets.

Harvesting rainwater also has several environmental benefits. The biggest benefit would be a result of less runoff. Less runoff means less contamination of surface water from chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. Less runoff also creates less erosion. While rainwater will require some treatment, the treatment is minimal when used for irrigation. More treatment would be required for toilet flushing. While it’s possible to treat it even further to make it suitable for drinking, this may not be feasible.

Stormwater is the runoff that occurs on the ground but has not yet been absorbed or been collected in a runoff system, such as a stream or river. Stormwater can be used for many of the same applications as rainwater, and the collection of stormwater helps prevent flooding and causing sewer overflows.

Because stormwater has been exposed to more pollutants, it will require more treatment than rainwater. These treatments include filters, disinfection, chlorination, and ultraviolet radiation. Reclaiming wastewater would only benefit a hospital so much that it could be used for irrigation. While it can be used in industrial processes, these are processes not utilized in a hospital setting.

There are many other sources for water collection and recycling, but all require storage and treatment. For each process a facility adapts, more space will need to be utilized for processing. While a hospital may greatly reduce its demand on local water sources that require fossil fuels to deliver water to the hospital location, it doesn’t seem possible as of yet to become completely independent of local water supplies. Still, any reduction benefits the locality, the environment, and the earth as a whole.

Can a Hospital Run at Full Capacity on Renewable Energy?

The answer to the question is yes, and there are hospitals around the globe already doing it. Hospitals see the importance of transitioning to clean energy due to the benefits it provides to the community, including reducing pollution and protecting health. As a business that’s a primary concern is health, it is counterproductive to add to the community’s health problems.

Renewable energy also becomes more affordable than energy derived from fossil fuels once the initial investment hurdles have been overcome. Renewable energy gives the hospitals a fixed-cost energy source that reduces the worry for seasonal shifts in weather.

Combining the different available clean energy sources makes sense for a hospital to make the switch. In fact, it should be happening at a faster pace than it is today. There are over 6,000 hospitals in the United States, and the only thing stopping every one of those hospitals from converting to clean energy is an investment.

Hospitals in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the United States have committed to 100 percent renewable energy. The initial number of hospitals making this commitment totals 1200, and while not all of these hospitals have yet reached their goal, they are on the right path. Some are on track to be completely independent of fossil fuels by 2025, and others by 2030.

How Can Renewable Energy Become a Reality for More Hospitals and Other Businesses?

The majority of the nation, its businesses, and its hospitals are still dependent on the energy derived from fossil fuels. It will be hard to leave fossil fuels behind if more money isn’t invested in clean energy. There is still a lot to discover about renewable energy and how it can be applied in different settings. As renewable energy sources become more mainstream, costs for switching to renewable energy should decrease, making it a viable option for hospitals and businesses of any size.

If a concern is employment that will be lost in fossil fuels, you can look to the need for water treatment and maintenance of other clean energy providers as replacement employment. There will always be jobs in the energy sector, regardless of where the energy is coming from.

Renewable energy will eventually need to be the only energy source utilized by homes, businesses, and hospitals. The sooner all industries can reach this goal, the sooner the environment can recover, and the sooner people can once again breathe clean air. Before that can happen, renewable energy will need to be within reach of everyone.

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