La Crosse health system builds toward green goal
Gundersen Lutheran Health Care System in La Crosse won initial approval for a $10 million Minnesota wind farm, the latest step toward energy independence by 2014.
The project will be on a private farm near Lewiston, Minn. Gundersen will sell the energy to the local power company, Alliant Energy, and receive energy credits. Those credits will offset 8 percent of Gundersen’s energy use.
The energy produced annually from the wind farm would be equivalent to that used by 1,400 homes or taking 2,300 cars off the road, said Gundersen spokesman Chris Stauffer.
Jeff Rich, Gundersen executive director for efficiency improvements, said the health care provider’s goal is to become carbon neutral by 2014. In other words, Gundersen wants to produce as much energy from renewable sources as it uses in energy produced by fossil fuels.
“When we achieve those goals, we believe we will be the first multifacility in the world to be energy independent,” Rich said.
It’s a great payoff but an expensive commitment, said Rick Thiesse, a spokesman for Franciscan Skemp, a part of the Mayo Health System and another health care provider in La Crosse.
“We looked at ways to make two of our new clinics more efficient,” Thiesse said.
Franciscan has not yet been as aggressive as Gundersen because of the initial cost in projects such as wind farms, Thiesse said.
Gundersen rejected buying green energy from its local power company because the additional cost would hurt the bottom line. Ultimately that cost would be passed on to consumers in the form of increased health care costs.
The 315-acre Minnesota wind farm will have three turbines. Approved by the Winona County Planning Commission this week, the project still has state and federal hurdles to clear. Rich wants construction to start in fall and be completed by September 2011.
Gundersen operates a 325-bed hospital in La Crosse and 40 clinics in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Earlier, Gundersen installed solar panels on the roof of the La Crosse campus garage and a child care center.
The health care provider also is using waste material from a local brewery to create methane gas to produce power. Those projects, Rich said, have produced an 8 percent to 10 percent reduction in energy costs.
When Gundersen decided to go green, the La Crosse hospital’s energy consumption was 10 percent more than the average in Wisconsin. After two years, consumption dropped by 30 percent.
“We were spending $5 million a year on energy,” Rich said. “We recognized $1 (million) to $1.5 million a year in savings.”
The savings will hold down the cost of health care, Rich said, and reducing pollution will prevent disease, a key part of any health care providerís mission.
“We’ve seen efficiency improvements over the past two years and we can see it on the bottom line,” Rich said. “We want to continue seeing those improvements but itís difficult.”