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Gundersen campus on the cusp of sustainable, energy-independent health care

Gundersen Health System’s Onalaska location will power microgrid with renewable resources and support from Xcel Energy

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April 29, 2024

ONALASKA – Hospitals operate amid constant uncertainties – ever prepared for ambulance bay doors to present new patients at any moment. 

Gundersen Health System’s Onalaska campus, Alan Eber said, will no longer have to concern itself over one vital variable: electricity. 

Thanks to a new partnership with national energy provider Xcel Energy, Eber said Gundersen’s Onalaska campus will be fully powered by its own “microgrid” by summer 2025. 

The microgrid, he said, will absolve the campus from relying on the broader electrical grid – and will be powered entirely by renewable resources already employed by the campus.

Eber is the director of Envision, which he said he calls “the sustainability and energy arm of the Bellin and Gundersen Health System.”

“(Envision) was formed as Gundersen was on its journey to energy independence,” he said. “We started that journey in 2008 and hit our first day of energy independence in 2014 – which means we generated more power using clean, renewable energy than we used off the utilities.” 

Eber said that initial run of energy independence lasted “months (as) the system grew faster than we could keep up” – as Envision continued its pursuit.

Envision’s efforts now, he said, have culminated in the new partnership with Xcel, as part of the energy company’s Empower Resiliency program. 

“(Xcel) got approval to do this through the public service commission in Wisconsin – to go and find people to work with on this (program),” he said. “We’re one of their pilot clients on this whole effort. This is the next step in our evolution.”

Engineering resiliency

After joining Gundersen in 2010, Eber said he immediately joined the Envision team.

An engineer by education, Eber said he spent his preceding years designing heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment before changing industries.

“I came to health care to help reduce the cost,” he said. “Even back then there was a healthcare cost crisis in the U.S. Me, being a bright-eyed, save-the-world type of person, thought I could play my part to help out. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would come through energy, but it has.”

During his time with Envision thus far, Eber said their initiatives at Gundersen’s Onalaska campus have reduced operating costs by $5 million a year.

Due to Gundersen’s not-for-profit status, he said, “all that money goes back to our patients and lowers their costs.”

“Step one was to use less energy because it’s far cheaper to use less energy than it is to generate energy,” he said.

Eber said Envision then started a whole group of different projects.

“We have generators where we generate electricity using waste methane,” he said. “Our first one was with a brewery in La Crosse. Our second generator is the one this Empower Resiliency program is going to be employing now – taking methane from the county landfill, bringing it on site and making electricity. We used to have projects in Middleton where we worked with dairy farms to generate methane. We also have two separate, five-megawatt wind sites – one here in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota. And then we use woody biomass to heat our entire La Crosse campus with that versus natural gas.” 

Eber said the Onalaska campus consists of approximately 600,000 square feet of facilities – which he said in addition to the energy generated from the county landfill – is powered by two different solar power-harvesting sites.

Envision’s Onalaska operations, he said, have often created enough energy to where Gundersen could sell power back to Xcel – which he said formed the basis of what would become the Empower Resiliency partnership.

“(Xcel) came to us and said, ‘we know you guys have all these energy-generating assets and you’re in health care – we think this is a perfect fit,’” he said. “We had been looking at doing something like this even before they came to us because we’re generating all this power, and we thought, ‘let’s use this ourselves instead of selling it back to the utilities.’”

Nearing completion

Eber said Xcel and Envision have nearly completed the final design for the new microgrid operation, with construction set to begin this fall.

Though the microgrid will essentially allow the Onalaska campus to power itself, Eber said, Xcel is hardly losing Gundersen as a customer.

“We aren’t in the business of running microgrids ourselves, so Xcel is going to be there for 10 years to run this thing for us and make sure it’s reliable and safe,” he said. “They created this path forward to say, ‘okay, we’ll help you generate your power, and then we’ll have the grid always there as a backup for you.’”

Xcel’s primary grid, Eber said, gains resiliency from having the Gundersen campus’ energy usage offloaded.

And, he said, the campus itself becomes more resilient with this energy independence.

Also serving as the director of facilities for Gundersen, Eber said he’s aware of any disruptions in electrical service that initiate the campus’ emergency generators.

Thanks to Xcel’s reliability, he said Gundersen has never experienced anything close to an energy emergency – though, that’s no guarantee for the future.

“As we move forward, we want to make sure we can provide the critical services we provide to our communities – regardless of what happens,” he said. “And if we can set ourselves up to do that, do that in a renewable way and save our patients money, that’s a win-win-win.” 

Eber also said he hopes Gundersen can serve as an example for other healthcare facilities to follow suit and experience the benefits of this burgeoning technology – something he finds deeply rewarding.

“We’re showing others these opportunities exist to move forward, so I love being in that role,” he said. “I also love the fact I get to do what I came here to do, and that’s lower the cost of care – definitely for us, and for other places across the nation, too.”

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