Healthcare Giants Leading the Way to Sustainability

Is it possible that a revolution in healthier buildings may be starting with the healthcare sector?

Yes! It may seem intuitive, but it is quite refreshing for companies to put their money where their mouth is, which is why it is great news to hear that several healthcare/pharmaceutical companies have committed to achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions.

A few months ago, insurance giant Kaiser Permanente committed to a 30 percent reduction by the year 2020. Last year, global pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 with a more immediate goal of 10 percent reduction by 2015.

It is inspiring to have such ambitious leadership, especially in such a challenging industry—one of the highest in energy-use intensity. Unfortunately, many companies are aspiring towards incrementalism (5 percent to 10 percent energy use reduction) or overlooking actually reducing energy use and buying their way out with green power purchases. I applaud these two corporate entities for bellying up to the bar in a way that is turning heads, setting a powerful example, and pushing other companies.

When it comes down to it, the buildings and campuses that house these organizations—and others around the world like them—will need aggressive attention to reducing energy use, perhaps even achieving net zero energy. (Net zero energy is when a building or facility generates as much renewable energy as it uses over the course of a year.)

Buildings are an important part of the climate change challenge since they comprise 42 percent of our total energy use in the U.S. Labs, research facilities, and industrial manufacturing sites can be among the highest in energy intensity, doubling or tripling the typical energy use of office space. Achieving net zero energy demands significant attention to load reduction strategies (reducing heating, cooling, ventilation, and plug loads). Only after loads are reduced as much as possible should renewable energy be considered (such as solar photovoltaics or wind power, among others). Focusing on energy use reduction before onsite energy generation is the most cost-effective way to attain net zero.

GSK has started working towards their commitment by pursuing various carbon reduction strategies (most significantly by reducing CO2 emissions from asthma inhalers by over 80 percent) but also in their facilities by tightening up operations and evaluating renewable energy generation. In 2010, GSK installed 3 megawatts of solar photovoltaic on a facility in Pennsylvania, which was the largest rooftop solar array in the U.S. at the time.

While achieving net zero energy has larger implications for the energy supply grid, it is critical for industry leaders such as GSK and Kaiser to remain aggressive. Doing so will help them reap the benefits of industry recognition, energy cost savings, greater energy security and increased employee health and productivity.

Better yet, they will indirectly improve the health of our children and our children’s children—which is their whole mission anyway, right?

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