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Friday, November 7, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: Gundersen turning waste into energy


By MaryBeth Matzek
You normally wouldn’t associate a health system with farms or producing energy, but that’s exactly what Gundersen Health System in La Crosse is doing.

Earlier this fall, the health system opened a $14 million biodigester in Middleton. The GL Dairy Biogas Project receives manure from more than 2,000 cows from three local dairies. The manure is used to create methane and produce electricity. Gundersen then sells the electricity to Madison Gas and Electric Co., which uses it to power about 2,500 homes and reduce fossil fuel carbon dioxide by 11,000 metric tons per year.

The biodigester, which is Gundersen’s second – it has a smaller one in Sun Prairie – is run by Envision, the health system’s sustainability initiative. “Hospitals consume a lot of energy from dirty sources like coal and since 2008 when we did an energy audit, we’ve been working to reduce our energy consumption and work on finding ways to use more renewable energy,” says Jeff Rich, executive director of Envision.

In addition to producing cleaner energy, Rich says the digesters prevent more than 3,700 pounds of phosphorus runoff to the water ways in Dane County every year.

The biodigesters are just one part of Gundersen’s energy-producing initiative: it also has a project in place that uses waste biogas created from a La Crosse County landfill and turns it into electricity and heat for some of its healthcare campuses; two wind turbine sites that produce 13 million kilowatts a year; a biomass boiler on the main Gundersen campus; and a large solar photovoltaic system.

“No one really thinks about a healthcare provider getting involved as an energy producer and being environmentally friendly,” Rich says. “But it’s something that is working for us.”

Besides producing energy, the health system has taken on different initiatives to trim its utility usage. “If we’re spending less on energy, those costs can be shared with patients,” Rich says. The new Middleton biodigester is just one of 35 on Wisconsin farms; there are another nine biodigesters in the state that run on something besides animal waste, including the nation’s first commercial-scale dry fermentation anaerobic biogas plant on the University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh. That digester runs on food waste and agricultural and yard waste.

Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of biodigesters, says Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin Inc. Wisconsin biodigesters produce 371⁄2 megawatts of electricity annually.

“They are a win-win-win. They not only produce clean energy, they help farmers deal with animal waste and they can also help farmers make money if they’re selling the power created back to the electrical grid,” he says.

Interest in biodigesters has risen in recent years, Cook says. Rosendale Dairy in Fond du Lac County, for example, has been turning some of the manure from its 8,000 cows into electricity since late last year. The dairy partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh on the $7 million project. The biodigester produces 1.4 megawatts of electricity or about enough electricity to power 1,200 homes.

The Rosendale biodigester uses two cylindrical anaerobic digestion rectors to process about 240 tons per day of separated manure solids. The site also features a public information center operated by UW-Oshkosh students and faculty and serves as a remote classroom and laboratory for UW-Oshkosh microbiology, biology, environmental studies and chemistry classes.

VA plan fuels WPS growth

WPS Health Insurance is looking to add up to 250 people at its Wausau office and another 30 at its Monona headquarters to help the insurer administer a new health care plan for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The insurer is a subcontractor for TriWest Healthcare Alliance of Phoenix for the Patient- Centered Community Care program for veterans in 28 states. WPS will issue the cards needed for the new program, process claims and provide customer service for the program for at least the next five years.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

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