How one member hospital is going ‘low-carb’
Trinity Health—one of the country’s largest nonprofit Catholic healthcare systems—is turning to fuel cell technology for reliable and low-carbon onsite electrical generation. The effort is financially beneficial, but the payback is twofold.
“Part of our mission at Trinity Health is stewardship, which includes carbon reduction, so in addition to the economic benefits, there’s also a mission-driven sustainability effort,” says Don Nasko, Director of Facility Infrastructure and Energy at Trinity Health.
Fuel cells explained
Fuel cells, which use the chemical energy of hydrogen, natural gas or other fuels to generate electricity, are highly efficient and require less fuel to generate a unit of electricity than traditional electricity-production methods. The result is reduced fuel costs and lower carbon emissions.
“They aren’t as pure as a solar array, which doesn’t create carbon emissions in its operation. But if you have an option to go with a fuel cell, it offers good savings and carbon reduction,” explains Nasko.
Nasko is excited about the possibility of maximizing the environmental impact throughout the health system by using fuel cells in locations where sustainable options for generating electricity are limited. “In the states with a lot of fossil fuel plants, we can put in fuel cell technology and produce the same amount of power with less carbon by using the non-combustion technology of the fuel cell,” he says.
Reliability & resiliency
Generating electricity onsite using fuel cells also adds redundancy to the system and improves facilities’ resiliency. “Fuel cells are extremely reliable,” says Bill Miller, Director of Strategic Account Integration, HealthTrust Advisory Services—Energy. “With fuel cells, you don’t have to worry about a transmission line going down.”
A hospital’s need for a reliable and secure power source isn’t new, but the transition to clean electrified technologies is impacting power grids across the U.S., shares Nasko, which reinforces the need for stability.
“We’ve noticed there have been times across the Trinity system where power quality comes into play,” he says. “A lot of our equipment needs three phases, but in order for the electric companies to keep the lights on, especially when they’re under duress, you can only get a single phase, which can burn critical components out.”
In deregulated markets like Connecticut, HealthTrust can procure third-party electricity for members, as it has for Trinity for over 10 years. When Trinity started investigating the possibility of fuel cells, it worked with HealthTrust to determine if and where the technology would be a viable option, taking into consideration power rates, financial incentives and site logistics.
“We looked at where we had high electrical power rates and the specific demand rates. Then we looked at where we have incentives from local utilities, the state and even the federal government,” Nasko explains. It then comes down to the geography of the site—looking at where we had an ‘easy’ install or where we had capacity from a construction project management standpoint.”
Trinity is in the initial phase of adopting fuel cells, with the first projects in Connecticut: a 1.5 megawatt unit at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury and a 400 kilowatt-hour unit at Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital in Hartford.
“Based upon the cost savings we were showing in these locations, it made perfect sense to do onsite generation with fuel cells. And, it contributes nicely to the sustainability goals of Trinity,” adds Miller.
Technology & cost considerations
For hospitals considering fuel cells, Nasko recommends starting by measuring and gathering data. “Often, utility costs get lost in the noise of the overall operating system of a hospital. But a measuring system will allow you to understand your baseline and outliers. Then, do a gap analysis to develop strategies for energy utility reduction and climate change activities,” he explains.
While fuel cells typically have low maintenance requirements, like all technology, they have an estimated life cycle. “Current technology is getting better, but typically they’re productive for about five years before you have to start replacing components,” says Nasko. Modular systems, which allow you to replace components as needed rather than the whole system, can help minimize maintenance costs and headaches.
Nasko is hopeful that the costs of the technology will decrease as it becomes more widespread, but in the meantime, he recommends researching financial incentives in your area. Miller advises that a fuel cell is a long-term investment. “It’s not a one- or two-year solution,” he says. “You’re looking at a 15-year commitment, at least.”
HealthTrust can help members assess whether fuel cell technology is a viable and advantageous option, including calculating potential greenhouse gas reductions and assisting with applications for financial incentives. Once on board, customers receive monthly updates on the operational results of the fuel cells.
Find out if fuel cell technology can benefit your organization. Email Bill Miller at email@example.comShare Email