• WisBusiness

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hospital combines with brewery to "energize health care"


By Gregg Hoffmann
LA CROSSE - It might seem like a stretch to combine beer and health care in one idea, but City Brewery and Gundersen Lutheran Health System have accomplished just that with a unique renewable energy partnership.

The two companies have combined efforts to generate 8 to 10 percent of the electricity used on Gundersen Lutheran's campuses in La Crosse and Onalaska by using waste biogas from the brewing process.

The project launched Oct. 7 and has been operating effectively. It is projected to generate about 3 million kilowatt hours per year. As Corey Zarecki, the project engineer and efficiency improvement leader for Gundersen Lutheran, puts it, that's the environmental impact equivalent of planting 490 acres of forest or removing 395 cars from the road. It is enough electricity to power about 300 homes.

"One reason we have done this is to cut energy costs and move toward our goal of being energy independent by 2014," Zarecki said. "But, we also feel it is healthy for the community, the right thing for our patients and fits in with being good stewards of the environment.

"You've seen the emphasis in the country on the economy, health and energy. We feel this project and our overall goal includes all three."

City Brewery has had to pre-treat wastewater from its plant, which brews beer, energy drinks and other beverages, since the mid-1980s at its own treatment facility, before sending it to the La Crosse municipal treatment plant.

In the pre-treatment process, solids are removed and used for fertilizer and other uses. Biogas, including methane, is given off during the process, and the brewery flared the gas to dispose of it for several years. "People around here called it the eternal flame," Zarecki said. With that flame came some air pollution.

The combined project captures the biogas, cleans it and sends it through an engine at the City Brewery site. The engine generates electricity that is then sent to the area power grid. Xcel Energy pays Gundersen Lutheran for the electricity that is produced.

This can allow Gundersen Lutheran to reduce overall costs, savings which could be passed to customers and patients. The company states that it believes "part of the answer (to stemming health care costs) lies in finding solutions to our rapidly rising energy costs."

In addition, heat generated from the engine is captured and recycled back to the City Brewery's waste water treatment center to make it more efficient.

"This type of gas-cleaning system, as well as the partnership, is to our knowledge the first of their kind," Zarecki said.

The statewide efficiency group Focus on Energy also has been a supporter of the project. "They've been very helpful from the start," Zarecki emphasized.

Of course, methane projects have been undertaken around the state, region and country, using manure digesters, landfill emissions and other raw material sources. Using water from a brewery has its own set of challenges, Zarecki said.

"We've had to make adjustments based at times on what they are brewing," Zarecki said. "The volume of water changes on the weekends and at night. So, you are making adjustments daily, hourly at times."

Such adjustments are necessary in all pioneering technology applications, added Zarecki, an engineer by trade. "We've made a lot of adjustments in our overall program on energy as we develop it. All I know is that we will reach our goal of becoming 100 percent independent," he said.

Gundersen Lutheran is in various stages of discussions and development of wind energy projects, in part with Organic Valley cooperative and Western Technical College, and possible environmentally-friendly energy projects in the Mississippi River.

A new parking ramp on the La Crosse campus includes solar panels on the roof. The electricity from the panels could power six to seven homes.

Gundersen Lutheran also has undergone a program of "retrocommissioning." Retrofitting of light fixtures in six buildings on the two campuses led to energy cost savings of $245,000 per year. Air handlers that blow warm or cool air through the buildings were adjusted to run only when needed, at a cost savings of $78,000.

Adjustments to how boiler systems work, to allow for the capturing of some of the heat produced, led to $64,000 savings. A process called chiller/tower optimization programmed into the cooling system on campus buildings realized an estimated $65,000 in annual savings.

"Some of the changes we're making seem obvious, but the way the space is used in buildings over the years has changed," Zarecki said. "That's why retrocommissioning is important. It takes a look at how the building's needs have changed to make sure your systems are being used in the most energy efficient way."

Gundersen Lutheran has issued the following "promise" as part of its "Energizing Healthcare" program: "Gundersen Lutheran is committed to environmental stewardship and energy management programs that promote a healthy environment for our patients, their families, our employees and the communities we serve. We are dedicated to solutions that make environmental and economic sense, creating a healthier environment and lowering health care costs."

What is called the Gundersen Lutheran "Envision Program" includes energy management through efficiency and renewable energy, recycling, waste management and control and sustainable design of new facilities."

Zarecki, while holding a soda can, said the effort begins with developing a "green" mindset. "As one of our company leaders says, I could throw this (the can) 'away', but away is someplace. You have to think of where that place is and what impact it has."

For more on the joint project with City Brewery and the overall Gundersen Lutheran initiative, go to: http://www.gundluth.org/green/

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He will write the GreenBiz column monthly.

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