What can hospitals do now to be well positioned for continued success in reaching carbon neutrality? We recently sat down with Greg Hudson and Michael Scruggs from RMF Engineering to discuss tips and best practices for this long-term initiative on our Ideas Shaping Healthcare podcast. Listen to the podcast episode here and read more below for a few insights from the episode.
The past few years has included a lot of discussion about the movement towards carbon neutrality, net zero, or climate positive facilities. Global companies like Apple have committed to their entire business becoming carbon neutral by 2030 — setting an ambitious standard for others to try and follow.
Carbon neutrality refers to the balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon emissions from carbon sinks. For clarity, carbon sinks are any system that absorbs more carbon than they emit — such as forest soils and oceans.
Reducing carbon emissions is a global concern, the UN reported in 2020 those countries representing more than 65% of harmful greenhouse gases and more than 70% of the world economy will have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The United States has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050, aiming for a 65% reduction in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and an all-electric fleet of car and trucks by 2035.
These types of pledges are excellent goals to aim for, however, achieving carbon neutrality for a system as complex as a hospital takes careful, strategic planning and a long-term commitment.
Hospitals Moving Towards Carbon Neutrality Face a Complex Task
Healthcare campuses are often large, complex, changing environments that have a big carbon footprint. Because healthcare facilities are big energy users, there are very specific environmental conditions and airflow requirements for spaces like operating rooms, imaging suites, and treatment areas that require high levels of energy to maintain. This makes hospitals in general large producers of carbon — either directly or indirectly.
What Types of Carbon Emissions Should Healthcare Facilities Be Aware Of?
Different emissions are grouped into scopes known as 1,2, and 3 (as defined by the GHG Protocol).
- Scope 1 refers to direct emissions — things that produce carbon on site in facilities and company vehicles.
- Scope 2 covers more indirect ancillary things, like purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling.
- Scope 3 includes downstream activities that are less under the hospital’s control, such as patient transportation, business travel and staff commutes, purchased goods and services, and capital goods.
Most healthcare facilities that want to move the needle in the right direction on carbon emissions should start with Scope 1 and optimize what they have first.
One question to ask is: what systems could be switched away from using fossil fuels to an electric solution?
These are the things that facilities and owner have the biggest control over, making changes easier than items that fall into Scopes 2 and 3.
Many hospitals also have big steam systems that use natural gas boilers or diesel generators for the resiliency and reliability of the facility. Obviously, reducing a facility’s dependence on using fossil fuels on-site is a big step in reducing the overall carbon footprint of the facility.
One option that’s becoming more popular in healthcare facilities is transitioning to heat pump technologies. This includes many HVAC systems. This is certainly a deviation from what owners and facilities personnel have been used to but shifting to heat pump equipment and electrifying more of their systems is an effective way to reduce a facility’s carbon footprint, but there’s no “one size fits all” solution.
It’s important to evaluate how equipment impacts the carbon footprint and consider all available alternatives that may have a smaller impact.
Rural Hospitals Face Additional Challenges
Healthcare facilities in rural areas are limited when it comes to choosing sources of power, which may impact their Scope 2 carbon footprint. Some do not have a “green” option nearby. If a hospital can’t access power from a green source, more would have to be done internally, through electrification and other means to offset the carbon created at source.
“It’s about making sure that you’re as efficient as you possibly can be within those systems,” says Gregory Hudson, Project Manager for RMF Engineering.
Figure Out How to Optimize What You Have First
Before asking stakeholders to agree to large system power changes, get an analysis of your facility’s current carbon footprint.
There are many carbon reducing technologies out there, but no “cookie cutter” solution when it comes to pursuing carbon neutrality. The first step is getting your facility to run as efficiently as possible.
Optimize what you have first, then start to tackle when to replace the biggest carbon culprits.
Tips for Successfully Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Get an analysis of what your carbon footprint is now and learn where your carbon is coming from.
- Take a holistic view of the issue. Where is your trash going? How many trees are on site? How do visitors and staff park and access the campus buildings? The GHG guidelines are a great tool to help identify a facility’s entire carbon footprint. From there you can begin to identify how to tackle your impact.
- Set some realistic goals and timeframes. This should be an in-depth conversation with all stakeholders. To set smart goals, everyone needs to be on the same page about what you’re trying to achieve — whether it’s more sustainability, increased energy efficiency, cost-effective resiliency, or a combination of these and other benchmarks. It’s possible, with the right information, to determine how much carbon you can reduce per dollar spent.
- Work with experienced master planners. A comprehensive plan will need to be shared with not just your board and the c-suite, but facility managers, engineering consultants, architects, and vendors as well.
- Be patient. This process can take years from start to finish. It will require good leadership from all levels of management, buy-ins from multiple parties, and some up-front spending. It’s okay to start small, demonstrate some “wins” then strategically scale up your efforts over time.
Carbon neutrality is a worthy goal for any healthcare facility to aspire to, but it may not be possible for every facility. However, if you’re willing to put in a little effort to make your facility more sustainable and efficient, you’ll discover the investments you make today will reap many rewards down the road, and achieve real results that you and your community can be proud of.