Is Natural Gas a HC Facilities Gold Rush?

Posted on July 19, 2013

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A strong undercurrent is growing for energy alternatives to electricity. Reasons for energy diversification away from electricity are quite established—efficiency, supply disruption risk management, disaster preparation, cost—to name a few.

There are progressive green energy ideas for healthcare, as well as more established choices like natural gas.

Even with natural gas, the question is:  how much can it help my hospital?

Power cogeneration (or CHP) is gaining more attraction from large, constant energy consumers like healthcare, who are perfect candidates for the benefits of CHP.  System redundancy for a disaster is only part of the appeal.

I am no natural gas expert, so I will keep things on the level that I understand—simple.  Last winter, I listened to a presentation at my local USGBC chapter on natural gas as a fuel source.  I knew there was a speculative drilling boom in the Midwest and the New York / Pennsylvania regions, and was more familiar than most with the pros and cons of fracking (I’m a PA native).  Natural gas was becoming more plentiful and thus, less expensive.  Electricity’s price was increasing.  In addition, I knew it burned cleaner and was more efficient.  It looked like an opportunity.

At the luncheon, I also learned how natural gas was being employed by early adopters.  No, entire hospitals were not cutting out electricity, just as few can afford to swap gas-for-electric cars or solar-for-electric home power.  Natural gas is an incremental movement.

One way gas is used in healthcare is as a major energy source.  A hospital system in south Florida I visited in June is totally prepared to be cut off from grid-supplied electricity by the next hurricane.  They have back-up Plans A, B and C for when they have to run off their non-grid sources.  They have cogen in place.  They are turning solid waste into biomass fuel, directly and indirectly.  By the facilities’ director’s accounts, natural gas is supplying about 30% of current power, with a goal to make it greater in the future.

Another way gas could be used in healthcare is in the vehicle fleet.  Granted, hospital systems must reach a certain size to invest in a sizable vehicle fleet, but the numbers were surprising.  Fuel (at the time):  truck diesel – $4/gallon; natural gas – $1.50.  Typical operating cost for a petroleum gas truck per year – $8000 vs. $3000 for natural gas.  This is based on 15 mpg, 30k miles and roughly similar mpg between fuels, which is supported by the U.S. DOE.  The U.S. Dept. of Energy has quite a bit on alternative fuels and comparison information.

Caveat:  natural gas is a general term (liquified and compressed are the two main types), and each has different benefits.

The bottom line with natural gas as a fuel source for healthcare vehicles:  hospitals can save money while utilizing a less toxic energy source that burns cleaner (less greenhouse gas emissions) and more efficiently than standard petroleum.  And natural gas can help power the infrastructure (HVAC) and generate electricity from non-grid sources.

Gold rush might be too strong a description for the rising interest and acceptance of natural gas; however, you may hear more development around this fuel source for healthcare—especially if the supply materializes as many expect.

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