Mike Waller

Providing care in upstate NY at Rochester Regional Health

April 06, 2018
by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor
Extreme weather events are becoming more common with the “once in a lifetime” flood or the latest “storm of the century” regularly bucking their labels.

With the increase of weather-related issues comes an increase in health issues, especially for the most vulnerable populations in the country with the poorest communities often being the hardest hit and lacking the funds to move to an area less prone to the increasingly dangerous vagaries of nature. It’s with that backdrop that HealthCare Business News spoke with Mike Waller, director of sustainability for Rochester Regional Health, to find out more about how the organization is taking steps to reduce its own impact on the environment.

Waller joined Rochester Regional in January 2016. He brought his background in engineering with a focus on renewable energy, having previously worked in the solar energy space and having a Ph.D. in sustainability from Rochester Institute of Technology.

HCB News reached out after learning that the organization was working toward a 100 percent renewable, carbon-free electricity goal by 2025. With 2025 just seven years away and knowing how slow it can be to move a health organization in a particular direction, the goal was attention-getting. Waller says that while the goal was publicly announced in late October of 2017, it was in discussion basically since he started. The initial step toward that carbon-free electricity goal was taken with the installation of the first solar array on top of the health system’s administrative building.

“The array is about half a megawatt,” said Waller. “After all the work we did to understand the renewable business and how it impacts us and how we could make it financially feasible, we were able to plan out to a certain extent, the next seven years, on how we could achieve our goal.”

The work isn’t just about installing solar panels. It actually brings in a variety of strategies. Waller said it boils down to a combination of improving energy efficiency by reducing electricity usage as well as continually looking for ways to improve other aspects of electricity usage, and then using renewable energy sources for that reduced need. But it’s not a straightforward process.

“That final piece, using renewable energy for our electricity, is more difficult particularly for a lot of our smaller locations. In some cases, we might partner with a group that has already developed a renewable project nearby. It’s just the nature of things. We might add a small practice in a week, for example, and then we’d decide on a case-by-case basis whether to build a source or purchase something that’s already been built.”

Waller credits Rochester Regional’s CEO, Dr. Eric Bieber, with driving the decision to go renewable.

“He’s always been passionate about the environment and he’s acutely aware of how much waste we generate and how much energy we consume. He understands the links between our environmental impact and human health problems. Eventually, all our environmental problems will become human health problems,” said Waller.

Waller added that human health problems are the center of the health care world, so it makes sense that the industry leads the way to mitigate potential health problems brought about from environmental factors. As he put it, “One way or the other, we’re going to have to deal with them.”

In terms of funding the eco-friendly push, it was again a multi-pronged approach. The health system looks for payback on energy initiatives over a timespan of a few months to about two years, with a longer grace period afforded to renewables like solar panels since there’s a greater financial investment, requiring a greater time period to see that money back. Regardless of whether it’s energy efficiency or installation of renewable electricity sources, all the savings roll over year after year. So once the initial pocketbook pain has subsided, finances can stay in the black.

Perhaps the easiest way Rochester Regional improved energy efficiency has been through switching their lighting to LED.

“It’s so inexpensive now that we see a payback in a year, or in some cases, even just a few months,” said Waller. “Those savings we’re able to reinvest in other renewable projects. We expect we’ll be spending $1.5 million less by 2025 than we do today on our electricity. The numbers are looking really good as we forecast that out.”

It’s not just the reduced cost of the electricity that factors into the financial savings. There is also a lower cost of maintenance. In what sounds like the punch line to a joke, Waller explained, “You need a bucket truck and two or three people to change the lightbulb.”

He was referring to replacing the bulb in a parking lot light, something that happens every year or two, but switching to LED reduces that task to once a decade or so.

Changes in lighting choices and usage, and also smarter use of HVAC, have been on the slate and are being acted on, with plug loads being the other piece of the improved efficiency puzzle.

“To date, our largest hospital in the past two years has seen a 10 percent reduction in electricity consumption. And that was all from changing out lighting, HVAC optimization and reducing plug loads by unplugging equipment.”

The audit for their electricity usage has been thorough, even taking a close look at the impact from the vending machines in place across the health system.

“We realized the vending machines, with many from the 1970s, were using a ton of energy. When we actually added it up and saw they were costing us $120,000 a year in electricity, we went back to the vendors and asked for new ones,” Waller said.

The move basically cut the electric bill for vending machines in half.

Another big energy suck was the computers. With the size of the enterprise, there are close to 16,000 desktops across the organization. Many reside in buildings that are only open a few days a week, or only a certain number of hours every day. But the machines often weren’t being powered down. So software is being rolled out to shut off, or put equipment into sleep mode. It’s estimated the move will save nearly 5 percent overall for IT energy consumption, which results in a savings of 2.5 percent or more of overall energy consumption.

“It’s the same with HVAC. You find areas where things don’t need to be on, so putting sensors in to turn the equipment on when the room is in use, or putting it on a timer makes sense,” explained Waller.

One bump in the road has been the tariffs recently announced on imported solar panels, but adjustments are being made to keep pushing forward.
“The tariff was a pretty big deal as we’ve been forecasting forward. When we were looking at certain projects, that’s definitely going to change how some of those finances will play out and obviously for the negative. But people do get creative and it’s amazing how much they can innovate,” said Waller.

Rochester Regional is putting forth effort on reducing the waste its facilities produce as well. It is having conversations with vendors to reduce unneeded packaging, creating programs to capture pre-consumer food waste from its cafeterias and then turning that waste into energy via an anaerobic digester to help put a dent in the 20 tons of waste the system produces daily. The health care system is also actively pushing recycling programs where possible.

There are other plans in the works Waller promised, but they can’t be announced at this time. HCB News will check in with them again to see how the eco-push is going.