A New Green Standard? How Hospitals Can Utilize Geothermal Energy to Save the Environment and Money

The term "green" is thrown around a lot these days. Making the switch to more environmentally friendly practices and products is defining the growing age of sustainability, but all green technologies are not alike. One green technology that is becoming a gold standard — both for heating and cooling as well as for green initiatives in general — is geothermal energy.

This is not in reference to the run-of-the-mill, pollutant geothermal power plants scattered throughout the country. Geothermal energy via heat pumps is a specific "earth energy" system that provides heating and cooling through the renewable temperature resources within the Earth. The Environmental Protection Agency actually recognizes these types of geothermal systems as the most "green" way to provide heating and cooling, as it does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses.

Sherman Hospital's geothermal system is run through a 15-acre lake.So what does this mean for hospitals? Before 2009, there was only one hospital in the United States — Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, Iowa — that utilized a geothermal heat pump system. GRMC has, not coincidentally, been ranked as the nation's most energy-efficient hospital several times since it first installed its system in 2001.

Sherman Hospital, based in Elgin, Ill., decided to take up a geothermal initiative of its own. In 2009, it became the second hospital in the country to run a geothermal energy system. The geothermal system is run through a 15-acre lake, the largest of any system in the state. Tom Nitz, vice president of ancillary services at Sherman, and Ray Diehl, Sherman's chief engineer, say the geothermal project certainly helped the hospital become more environmentally friendly, but it also helped the hospital save on its bottom line.

The basics behind Sherman Hospital's geothermal lake
In 2009, the Sherman Hospital executive staff decided to rebuild the entire facility. After a site visit at GRMC, the Sherman administration also decided to move forward with a geothermal energy system and lake. The 15-acre lake is the lifeline of the system, which is comprised of 761 water-to-air heat pumps and 66 water-to-water heat pumps.

Essentially, the system works by extracting heat out of the lake water, which is a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature fluctuates from 89 degrees in the summer to 39 degrees in the winter — something Mr. Diehl says is a common misconception for geothermal lakes. For example, in the winter, the electric geothermal pumps pull heat out of the lake water and direct the heat throughout the hospital. Each patient room has its own heat pump, almost like how hotels have their own window unit for heating and cooling, which can control the temperature. "It works off refrigeration, much like a home air conditioning unit," Mr. Diehl says. "The lake is considered to be the outside unit." Conversely, in the summer, heat is removed from the building and rerouted back into the lake.

Mr. Diehl says it cost about $45 million to install the entire mechanical systems, and the geothermal portion of the system is roughly $6 million more than a traditional heating and cooling system for a facility the size of Sherman Hospital.

Sherman Hospital's geothermal system is run through a 15-acre lake.Benefits vs. challenges
Some of the challenges associated with installing a geothermal heating and cooling system are somewhat obvious, Mr. Diehl says. First, and foremost, a hospital has to have the real estate to consider a project of this magnitude. Sherman Hospital set aside 15 acres for its lake, and any hospital interested in this type of initiative will most likely need to devote 10 acres.

Other hurdles include the upfront costs, which can be a challenge for hospitals that have credit issues. Mr. Diehl says maintenance costs are also a little higher, as the heat pumps and lake need to be monitored and checked monthly. Additionally, because the system is run via electric compressors on the heat pumps and moved away from gas heating, Sherman's electric bill went up 15 percent.

However, Mr. Nitz says those challenges are secondary to the direct benefits the hospital has already witnessed, the most evident being the overall energy savings from switching to self-produced heating and cooling. "Financially, we had estimated we'd be saving $1 million per year in energy," Mr. Nitz says. "Those are pretty significant savings, and it seemed like the right thing to do."

After Sherman's executive team learned of the long-term savings and positive environmental impact associated with a geothermal heat pump system, Mr. Diehl says it was an easy decision to move forward with the project. "It wasn't a hard sell [to the administration]," Mr. Diehl says. "It didn't meet on our return-on-investment of three years, but it's actually going to pay us back even a little faster than we anticipated. It will continue to pay us back long-term."

While the electric bill went up, the gas bill went down — dramatically. Gas consumption has gone down 80 percent over the past two years, and Mr. Diehl adds that the hospital's water consumption has also decreased by 72 percent. The decline in water usage is attributed to the fact that Sherman has no cooling towers, unlike other hospitals, which means no water needs to be used or evaporated to cool down the hospital.

Sherman Hospital will be saving money over time with the system, but Mr. Nitz emphasizes that the community benefit also played a role. Thinner costs certainly helped the decision to go toward a geothermal energy heating and cooling system, but moving toward true "green" practices was also a key objective. "It's a good educational opportunity," Mr. Nitz says. "This is a green technology, and that went into our thinking as well — being good stewards of the community."

Related Articles on Green Hospital Management:

Moving Toward Sustainable Healthcare: Where Should Hospitals Begin?

6 Ways an Operating Room Can Become More Environmentally Friendly

The Energy to Go Green: 5 Changes to Help the Environment and Improve Your Hospital's Bottom Line

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