Climate and Energy in the Health Care Sector: An Interview with Bill Ravanesi

July 25, 2017 | 2:52 pm
Photo: Partners Healthcare
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Health care has been in the headlines a whole lot lately, and it’s never far from our minds or wallets. It’s never far from our lungs or hearts, either—or, it turns out, our energy choices. How we make electricity, and what happens to our climate, have big implications for human health.

Our health care sector isn’t taking those connections lightly. Here’s what one expert had to say about how Massachusetts institutions are leading the way on connecting the dots.

Health care, as you might agree, is a big deal. It’s a $3.2 trillion piece of our economy, 18% of GDP. Asthma affects some 25 million US residents. More than 100 million people live in US counties that earn an “F” on ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, power generation is a major source of air pollution and heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, and climate change has serious health implications of its own.

All that means that the health care sector can be a powerful source of positive momentum when it focuses on climate and energy issues.

Bill Ravanesi is the senior director of the health care, green building, and energy program of Health Care Without Harm. HCWH is a Massachusetts-founded organization that campaigns for environmentally responsible health care globally, a coalition of 450 health-related organizations from around the world “working to transform the health care sector, without compromising patient safety or care, to be more ecologically sustainable.” (More on Bill and HCWH below.)

Energy, resilience, and health

Bill is passionate about his work and excited about the progress being made. I had a chance to talk with him recently about climate, energy, and health care institutions, and in particular what’s going on at the intersection of those subjects in Massachusetts, a state known for its leadership in all three.

I asked Bill for his take on why it made sense for health care organizations to be thinking about climate and energy, and investing in solutions.

Well, they want to be anchoring community health and resilience. They feel very strongly that they’re part of their community, their neighborhood, and that they have to be there under all circumstances—24/7. I can tell you, many of these engineers see the patients as their patients. I’m not talking about the doctors. The engineers see people in beds in hospitals as their patients and work from that model… And they certainly recognized what happened to patients in both [Hurricane] Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy!

Some health care institutions in Boston have already taken a leadership position on being resilient—for what we’re going to see with sea-level rise, extreme heat, and precipitation in this area from climate change.

So that supports the idea of making the facilities resilient, using clean and efficient energy options to make sure energy is there when its needed, in the face of climate impacts like sea-level rise, including places like Boston. What about deals for renewable energy, either on their own facilities, or elsewhere, sometimes from several states away?

It makes sense on two counts to them. It is saving them money… and that’s carved out for the next twenty years not to go up. So, it makes sense economically to be doing this… It’s a win-win financially for them.

And then of course, health is part of their mission, and they see climate and health as a unit. And with renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases, you’re reducing the pollution, you’re reducing the number of asthma cases coming into the hospitals, you’re reducing all kinds of respiratory illnesses, etc. In fact, it crosses a large arc of what happens with adverse health effects, from the heart to the neurological, to you-name-it. It’s a whole series of things here, so they’re being protective of their community.

You can’t look at energy costs or energy investments without thinking about the implications for human health, says Bill, for the near or long term:

In the state of Massachusetts, households spend six times more per household on health care than they do on energy. So, if you see the [Massachusetts] Department of Public Utilities or utilities, or whomever else is controlling, moving pieces around, like bringing in a new natural gas pipeline… you’re going to be shifting costs from energy into health care because we have to take care of the individuals who are going to be breathing in the pollution, the adverse health effects from fossil fuel development.

A 1.25 megawatt solar array on Partners Healthcare’s office complex in Somerville, Massachusetts, part of Partners’s 9 megawatts of installed solar capacity. The system generates the equivalent of 15% of the complex’s electricity use (Credit: Partners Healthcare).

Making strides, building momentum

So what’s actually happening? Plenty, says Bill, as he easily rattles off information about recent moves by some of the Boston area’s top health care facilities to put energy efficiency, renewable energy development, and carbon emission reductions front and center:

The Boston Medical Center, this past December, closed a deal to buy a significant piece of the output from a 60 megawatt solar field in North Carolina… This purchase will neutralize 100% of [the carbon emissions from] electricity consumption for BMC, putting them on target to be carbon neutral by the end of 2018.

Partners Healthcare has just done another deal for output from a 29 megawatt wind farm just over the Massachusetts line in New Hampshire…

Partners is also putting PV [solar photovoltaics] on most of their facilities. They have 13 or 14 different facilities around the state, from Cape Cod all the way into Boston—Mass General, Brigham and Women’s, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospitals. Partners’s goal is to be 100% renewable energy-powered for their entire healthcare system by 2025.

And resilience, from flooding, for instance, is an important piece of the energy work. Bill uses Partners as an example:

They have moved all of their critical electrical facilities out of the basements, up to higher elevations (out of harm’s way for flooding). So, if you look at the Spaulding Rehab, that’s running on a cogen unit [combined-heat-and-power system], when the grid goes down, they can still be operating. They put the cogen unit on the eighth floor; it’s 110 feet above sea level. I don’t think we’ll ever see a surge that high… Spaulding is considered one of the most resilient hospital buildings in the United States.

Vision for the long haul

These health care institutions, Bill says, have the longer-term perspective that the challenge of climate change calls for, and that is in keeping with Massachusetts’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, which lays out 2020 and 2050 goals for cutting state carbon emissions:

So, some of the leading facilities in Boston have this kind of vision going forward that they’re not just looking at the year 2020, as to what they can do. They’re looking at the year 2050. They’ve charted this out—what they need to do and when they need to do it to meet the Global Warming Solutions Act’s mandated target. And of course they’re going to be way ahead on the 2020 goal of 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Where does this kind of leadership in health care/climate/energy go from here? The sky is the limit, says Bill—or the globe.

We see Boston as the incubator. We take whatever the initiatives are—we try to run them here. And if they’re successful here, we run them nationally. If they’re successful nationally, we run them globally. So, it’s a great paradigm.

Of course this work doesn’t happen in isolation; my HCWH colleague Paul Lipke is a partner in these accomplishments. And I want to acknowledge Mariella Puerto of the Barr foundation for her belief in and support for this work.

A recent analysis produced by HCWH for Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission documents a lot of successes already achieved in the local health care sector in terms of clean energy and resilience. The many institutions that Bill and his colleagues collaborate with, it suggests, are blazing a strong trail.

The health care industry has the power to appreciably move the needle on climate and energy progress. Leaders in the sector are harnessing that power, to the benefit of their communities and the world as a whole.

More on Bill Ravanesi: Bill has been with HCWH since 1997, and has received numerous awards, including the CleanMed Environmental Health Hero Award in recognition of his role in deepening our understanding of the critical links between health and the environment, and the USEPA’s Environmental Merit Award for outstanding efforts in preserving New England’s environment. Bill has a master’s degree in environmental health from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and produced the national traveling exhibition and monograph Breath Taken: The Landscape & Biography of Asbestos.

More on Health Care Without Harm: HCWH’s three main goals for the next five years, says Bill, are to protect public health from the effects of climate change by reducing health care’s carbon footprint and accelerating “climate resilient” health systems; to transform the supply chain by establishing a core set of procurement criteria for low-carbon, zero-waste, and toxic-free products; and to activate healthcare’s leadership in society as a messenger for environmental health and climate change.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.