Net Zero Healthcare: Envisioning an All-Electric Future for Hospitals
The importance of healthcare infrastructure cannot be understated.
By Alessandro Ciampechini
Worldwide, citizens depend on hospitals, which must run 24/7 without interruption to deliver continual critical care. From cooling and ventilation to sterilisation and lighting, the energy needs of hospitals are significant and, as such, their carbon emissions are high: indeed, the healthcare sector is responsible for 4.4 per cent of annual global emissions1. But more and more countries are pledging to meet net zero targets and hospitals have a significant responsibility here. Decarbonisation of the healthcare sector is a pressing and difficult challenge on a global scale. Is electrification part of the solution? By incorporating electrification, hospitals can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and reap significant benefits. An all-electric facility represents the opportunity to save on energy costs, contribute to improving human health and pave the way towards a greener, more sustainable future for healthcare and the planet.
The electrification of hospitals involves swapping existing technologies and systems that use fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives like heat pumps and electric vehicles. If sources of zero-carbon electricity such as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal can be harnessed by hospitals to meet their substantial energy needs this would significantly reduce their carbon footprint. Alessandro Ciampechini, Associate Director, WSP, provides an insight into what the transition to sustainable, electrified energy entails: ‘It’s about converting HVAC systems to electric technologies,’ he explains. ‘This will require a redesign of most of the heating and hot water generation systems, allowing for lower temperature set points. In addition, although future hospitals will need to reduce the amount of steam used, electricity can contribute to steam generation, including sterilisation usage.’
Ciampechini is working on the Energy Strategy for Net Zero by 2030 at Royal United Hospital in Bath, which is an example of a hospital that is aiming to electrify its operations to cut carbon emissions. ‘We have developed the work around three main areas: reducing energy demand by optimising existing equipment and through systems upgrades; maximising renewable generation on site through solar PV; and eliminating fossil fuels by electrifying energy use on the site,’ he says. In Australia, plans for the country’s first all-electric hospital are underway. Adelaide’s new Women’s and Children’s Hospital (nWCH) will be connected to an electricity source powered by South Australia's increasingly renewable grid – in 2020, renewables delivered 60 per cent of the state’s energy needs – and will also use electricity generated and stored on site.
Is the future all-electric?
Visions of a future where hospitals are all-, or at least part-, electric are encouraging, but is it truly an attainable goal? Lives depend on hospitals running consistently and continuously and it is essential that they have a reliable and sufficient energy supply so this is an important consideration when weighing up introducing electrification. Ciampechini acknowledges that there are indeed challenges but says these hurdles can be overcome providing hospitals make adequate and thorough preparations: ‘Hospitals and care settings have unique heat requirements, including high temperature steam and substantial hot water demand, which in some cases can be difficult to meet using low carbon technologies such as heat pumps, heat networks and solar thermal,’ he states. ‘As a consequence, each estate needs a comprehensive technical assessment and detailed strategy and business case to find the most effective solution.’
With growing numbers of suppliers of renewable energy that can provide hospitals with renewable electricity sources irrespective of where they are located, as well as burgeoning innovations and technologies, electrification is a real possibility. ‘From a technology perspective we already have all we need to make it happen,’ says Ciampechini. ‘Moreover, in the coming years these technologies will improve their efficiency and deliverability to a wider range of applications.’ Establishing electrification is likely to require a higher initial investment but will prove financially beneficial in the long term through energy savings and avoiding future levies on fossil fuels use. ‘The implementation plan needs to be realistic and cannot disrupt typical hospital operations,’ says Ciampechini. ‘Major investments can be bundled with hospital refurbishment or within equipment’s life cycle replacement programmes. Replacing carbon intensive equipment at the end of its useful technical life with low or zero carbon equipment also makes financial sense from an operating expense perspective in the medium to long term.’
A transformative option
Ultimately, if hospitals across the globe can become fully electric or incorporate greater use of electrified energy into their buildings and operations, it could create a virtuous circle. As the electricity grids continue to decarbonise , greater use of electricity in healthcare will valuably contribute to achieving crucial operational net zero outcomes with, for example, the greenhouse emission savings of Adelaide’s nWCH estimated to be 2,178 tonnes per year, which is the equivalent of removing around 700 vehicles from the road. There will be benefits for public health due to the myriad of health problems associated with natural gas emissions as well as further commonalities around greater back up generation capacity and enhanced plant operational flexibility. The use of zero emissions vehicles, for example, means less pollution and related illnesses, saving on healthcare costs. Furthermore, hospitals have the potential to enhance their resilience by incorporating electric innovations and thereby improving their power availability and reliability. Government support and investment is required to afford hospitals the building blocks they need to go electric and with new and exciting innovations emerging, the options for electrification will continue to expand. Not only is the electrification of hospitals feasible, but it has the potential to breathe new life into ageing infrastructure and enable hospitals to be future-ready.