Time For an Energy Checkup: Why Microgrids Are a Healthy Option for Health Care Facilities

May 12, 2023
Health care facilities and hospitals are increasingly adopting distributed energy resources (DERs) like microgrids to ensure reliability through increased resilience and even reduce energy costs at the same time. On average, global health care systems account forover 4% of global CO2 emissions, making it one of the most carbon-intensive sectors of the industrialized world. While microgrids aid in energy consumption, they also help hospitals with their top priority: ensuring patient safety and care. By improving resilience to grid disruptions and increasing sustainability while controlling energy-related operating expenses, microgrids offer an effective backup solution.  

Forward progress at the federal level 

In fact, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently made the decision to effectively allow microgrids to provide prime and backup power for health care facilities, along with diesel generators. This decision to approve alternate energy sources for critical facilities shows promise for future projects in other areas and industries where resilience is nonnegotiable, but carbon reduction is also imperative.   

While this decision is a step forward in decreasing our global dependence on fossil fuel power sources, this is not a new concept, even for health care facilities. The US Department of Health and Human Services has long encouraged health care facilities to lower their carbon emissions as part of our national commitment to climate concerns. With the newly established decision from CMS combined with the Inflation Reduction Act benefits, there is now room for continued innovation to achieve resilience while progressing on climate goals.    

From experimental to standard operating procedure  

Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is one example of early adoption that has the ability to evolve into a larger initiative. To ensure resilient power at its 24/7/365 level-one trauma center, maintain mission-critical operations, and support facilities in the event of an outage, the facility turned to a microgrid. For planned and unplanned outages, the 8-MW combined heat and power system generates 52,000 MWh of electricity annually, as well as hot and chilled water for critical operations like surgical prep and sterilization. Additionally, the carbon reduction is equivalent to that of removing 4,000 cars from the road annually, and it can use renewable gas to achieve 100% renewable energy. 

So why haven’t other hospitals and health care facilities capitalized on microgrids? Traditionally, to fully optimize a microgrid solution, hospital teams have had resource and regulatory challenges. Facilities must ensure accurate feasibility studies are done and DERs are properly sized for the need. Because of the highly regulated industry, health care administrators must evaluate all financing options, incentives and operational models to reduce risks and maximize returns.  

This challenge is not unique to the health care industry, but also to many others that have requirements around financing, regulation and even resourcing for operation. Microgrids have historically been tailored and customized to meet the specific needs of an organization or facility. While this customization is ideal for some scenarios, it has hindered adoption for the reasons listed above. Standardizing microgrids can reduce complexity and ultimately lead to increased adoption.  

Creating a framework for all aspects of the solution, including the design, physical components, digital experiences and data, makes microgrids a broader and more accessible option. With standardization more midsize buildings and facilities can improve resilience and sustainability, while also realizing a faster return on their investment. 

Improving reliability and climate health 

Federal moves to enable alternative power solutions open the door for more DERs to be installed in mission-critical facilities, health care included. Having diverse backup assets, in addition to the traditional fossil fuel generators, provides greater resilience in the inevitable event of an outage. Microgrids can capitalize on the advantages of various components: solar in fair weather, battery storage in immediate need, natural gas in extreme conditions.

Making infrastructural changes in facilities where lives are quite literally at stake must be done in a balanced and collaborative manner. With federal support, cognizant innovation and standardization, alternative power solutions are not only accessible but a more immediate reality for mission-critical facilities. With microgrids, health care facility administrators can keep patient care at the top of the priority list through increased resilience, while also answering the global need to reduce carbon emissions.  

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