Editors Note: The following links to an article by Judith D. Schwartz appearing on TIME.com published on November 10, 2008.
Some industries are obvious energy hogs: airlines, autos, office buildings. Others, like health care, are stealthier consumers. But the U.S. health-care infrastructure is one of the country’s hungriest users of energy.
Medical procedures, for instance, rack up massive energy tabs – especially surgeries, emergency services and pathology laboratory tests. “Enormous amounts of energy are required to build and run high-tech systems in common use – MRIs, CT scans, etc. – with many running 24 hours a day,” says Pamela Gray, a trustee of the Transition Network, a U.K.-based organization that supports community-level initiatives to improve sustainability and combat climate change. Further, nearly all pharmaceuticals are made from petroleum derivatives, and so are medical materials (think rubber gloves and intravenous tubing). And then there’s transportation: transferring equipment, supplies and lab samples, or getting patients to the right facility, sometimes by ambulance or helicopter. (See TIME’s A-Z Health Guide.)
Square foot by square foot, hospitals use twice as much energy as office buildings. Health care is the second most energy-intensive industry in the U.S., after food service and sales, with energy costs of $6.5 billion a year – a number that continues to rise. As the nation’s 78 million baby boomers age, their need for medical services will dramatically increase. Meanwhile, the steady effects of a warming climate, say epidemiologists, will lead to an increase in infectious and chronic conditions, such as allergies and respiratory disease.
Forward-thinking medical institutions are taking a hard look at their energy portfolio. “I’ve seen a huge uptick in hospitals exploring and investigating” ways to reduce fossil-fuel dependence, says Nick DeDominicis of Practice Green Health, particularly since 2007 when World Health Organization and U.N. reports suggested that climate change due to fossil-fuel use and CO2 emissions could threaten public health. Hospitals, such as the California-based Kaiser Permanente and San Francisco’s Catholic Healthcare West, have gone greener by swapping out old equipment for more energy-efficient systems of heating, cooling, lighting and dehumidifying. DeDominicis says a typical hospital could reduce energy waste 20% to 25%, with corresponding decreases in cost and emissions. (See TIME’s special report on the environment.)…