Burning with Energy Cooley Dickinson Cops National Award for Sustainable Practices

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton has long taken what it considers a leadership position in terms ‘green’ practices and operating philosophies. And now, it has some paperwork to back up those claims.

Indeed, the Volunteer Hospital Assoc. (VHA), a national health care network, recently presented John Lombardi, director of Facilities and Engineering at CDH, with its 2011 Leadership Award for Sustainability. That term ‘sustainability’ means using a resource so it is not depleted or permanently damaged, and the hospital has proven it has a burning desire — exemplified by its wood-burning co-generation system — to protect the environment and the health of the community.

Cooley Dickinson was one of only 13 health care facilities across the nation recognized at VHA’s recent annual conference in La Jolla, Calif. with a Sustainability Excellence/Best in Class Individual Program award.

In fact, its system is so unique and successful that Lombardi was asked to speak about it the week before he accepted the award at the Sustainable Hospitals 2011 conference in San Diego, sponsored by Active Communications International. The purpose of that conference was to help hospital officials understand how creating a sustainable environment can reduce operational costs, improve staff retention, and enhance the patient experience.

“It’s always been a Cooley Dickinson initiative to promote healthy living and a healthy environment,” Lombardi said, adding that it is the first hospital in New England to use wood chips to heat and cool its facility. “Hospitals use a lot of energy and resources to keep up with patient care, and it would be easy to burn oil and use nasty plastics and not be conscious of ecology. But we have been ahead of the game since 1980.”

Firing Up

Cooley Dickinson has been burning wood chips to heat and cool its campus for 25 years. “The hospital applied for a grant to install its first wood-burning operation,” said spokesperson Christina Trinchero. It was approved, and in 1985, the federal government funded half the cost of a new wood-chip plant. The chips are purchased locally and consist of scrap wood from milling operations or old trees.

“Our boiler was designed and installed to eliminate the need to burn high-sulfur fuel oil when oil cost less than 50 cents a gallon,” Lombardi said. “The design of the hospital’s power plant has been in the forefront of running on sustainable energy since the ’80s.”

In 1996, a 500-ton steam-absorption chiller was added to provide chilled water for air conditioning. Lombardi explained that the steam supply for the chiller comes from the wood-chip plant and reduces the electrical power needed for air conditioning.

In 2006, hospital officials made the decision to continue to expand their green initiative. Before building a new 110,000-square-foot surgery center, they invested in a second wood-chip boiler. It was designed with an efficient-emissions package approved by the Mass. Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Northampton.

Lombardi said this was no small investment, as the unit costs about $2.5 million. But it offers many benefits. The wood chips are purchased locally, and since much of the material comes from waste, it reduces the load on landfills. The operation also creates jobs that Lombardi says would not otherwise exist, and the ash produced by the boiler system been donated to farms for fertilizer.

In 2008, the hospital employed an agency to conduct an energy study. As a result, additional measures were implemented to help produce electricity and continue to reduce Cooley Dickinson’s dependence on energy from other sources. Modifications were made to the power plant, which included drilling a new well, and today CDH’s energy-saving measures benefit the environment and save the hospital approximately $450,000 each year.

Recent energy initiatives that began in January of 2010 include installing 4,600 energy-efficient light fixtures, along with new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning controls, and upgrading the steam-distribution system. In addition, the hospital launched a food-waste composting program in February, which reduces costs by taking waste out of the trash system.

“We realize that waste is inefficient and there is a lot of waste in things we do. So, the right thing to do is to minimize our waste,” Lombardi said. “We also believe in a healthy environment, and wood is cleaner to burn than oil.”

The hospital operates its burner under an Environmental Protection Agency permit that requires it to remove dust particles from the smoke. “So the emission from the smokestacks is mostly steam,” Lombardi explained.

He told the Healthcare News that the new clean-energy features, along with micro-turbines installed in 2009 and 2010, save approximately 825,000 gallons of fuel oil and prevent 1,534 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions from being released into the atmosphere.

“That equates to 301 passenger cars not being driven for a full year, or 179 typical households being taken off the energy grid, or 469 tons of waste recycled,” he said.

Winning idea

When he decided to fill out the application for the award, Lombardi never thought the hospital would win.

“It was a national competition, and there were a lot of other hospitals involved. I thought there would be bigger hospitals with bigger stories than ours at Cooley Dickinson,” he said. “Our story is simple — we burn wood and make electricity and heat and cool with it.”

So he was very proud when he was introduced at the gala. “We were honored to receive the award because it takes a lot of work on the part of our staff members and engineers to maintain the system. There are a lot of components and technology that affect many people at the hospital who have to coordinate their efforts to keep the system running at capacity and efficiently. So, it was nice to be recognized nationally,” he said.

During the conference, participants from other medical facilities expressed admiration and awe. “They didn’t understand how we could generate air conditioning out of wood. But to us, it’s easy,” he said.

Lombardi is proud of CDH’s system, and credits hospital officials for their support.

“Our senior leaders had confidence in the facilities team that the investment would pay off,” he said. “The old-school hospital mentality is to spend money on bigger machines and state-of-the-art technology. But that continues to waste energy, which is needed to run the machines. Instead, we are spending our money wisely in regard to sustainability and the environment, and it has paid for itself and also provided jobs for people.”

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