Saving energy in the buildings that save lives

In a Q&A, Kat Morlang, energy manager at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, discusses optimizing chiller plants, swapping out inefficient lights, and other ideas to make the health system as energy-efficient as possible.

A smiling woman stands next to a screen that displays energy usage information for chiller plant system.
Energy Manager Kat Morlang has no shortage of ideas for how to reduce the energy consumption of the Penn Hospital System.

Before joining Penn a little less than a year ago, Kathleen Morlang managed energy efficiency for HVAC control companies, nursing homes, and even a brewery. But a health system is a whole different ballgame. As the new energy manager for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP),  Morlang has big plans for reducing energy use and costs and has already begun rolling out a broad long-term vision.

Morlang spent her first 11 months assessing the hospital system’s current energy consumption and connecting with the people who can help her bring about the changes she envisions for a more sustainable future. Penn Today talked with Morlang about her role so far, the programs currently in development, and her hopes for HUP.

Nationally, health care buildings use about 8% of total energy consumed by all commercial buildings. What makes it difficult for medical campuses to be energy efficient?

Hospitals never shut down, which creates two issues. One, it’s a 24/7 operation, so it can, in general, consume more energy than a typical office building. You can’t say, ‘Sorry, it’s 11 o’clock at night, we’re going to turn the temperature up now.’ So that’s one of the difficult challenges. 

The other is related to maintenance. We’re a hospital that runs at almost full capacity or over capacity. Maintenance in a hospital that’s always at capacity is very difficult. For example, if you’re in a hospital room with a unit heater on your wall, that heater needs to get serviced every quarter because when you clean it it runs more efficiently. But when that room is occupied 24/7 for 365 days a year, it’s impossible to get in there. Think about an 800-bed hospital; we’re lucky if we get two rooms a day for a couple hours.

Is it easier to cut energy use in non-patient buildings?

I’m in the middle of a program for the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine working with a company where basically, to make a long story short, if we start shutting stuff off at night, we’re probably going to save about 20% to 30% of the energy.

You mentioned one of your big sustainability projects right now is optimizing the chillers, which produce the cold water and subsequently, the cold air, in the health system’s buildings. Can you describe what improvements you’re making?

The chiller project is my baby. Chillers are kind of like a big air conditioner that help to make your buildings cool. We have a really big baseload, and we still have to cool this place in the dead of winter. 

The project—it’s in conjunction with Johnson Controls and a company called Optimum Energy out of Seattle—runs algorithms that look at the entire chiller plant. It continually monitors to turn one fan on, turn another fan off, ramp this up, ramp this down. We know how much energy each one of those consumes and so the algorithm basically maximizes the output of the chiller plant and minimizes the energy at the same time. It takes us half as much energy to cool the place in the dead of winter just by running our chiller plant through the optimization.

How will the chiller-optimization project benefit the system long-term?

The chiller plant alone is going to save around 20% percent of electricity, 10% of the overall cost of the building just by this one implementation. And as part of this program, because we are getting so much energy off the grid, we will actually be getting a $220,000 rebate from PECO.

What are some other initiatives you’re looking at for the future?

By the end of 2019, we hope to have upgraded all lighting on the entire medical campus to LED. The benefits of those are twofold. Obviously, they require less energy, but they also have a better maintenance cost. And you don’t have to worry about getting into a patient room to change a light bulb or lights going out in the hall. LED lights now last seven, eight years.

Bigger picture, we’re looking into cogen. Cogeneration involves taking one form of energy and converting it to another. The simplest form of cogen takes natural gas and produces electricity directly at the facility where you use it. In the process you also produce heat, which you can then capture to heat your facility. Another possibility is using steam. Currently we purchase steam at a high pressure, but we use it at lower pressures throughout the campus through a process commonly called ‘knocking down’ the pressure. I’m looking at another technology used elsewhere in Philadelphia that captures the pressure and energy of that steam and converts it to electricity.

How is HUP collaborating with other organizations, both in Philadelphia and nationally?

We’re hugely involved with the American Society for Health Care Engineering, which works in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency on something called the Energy to Care program. The idea is to get hospitals across the nation to reduce their energy costs by at least 10%. So, if you can reduce your cost by 10% in one year, or 15% over two years (which is a little more achievable), then you can get national recognition. There are people from other local Philly hospitals that are very active in it, too, and we are all there working together. Most hospitals are not as fortunate as we are to have a position like an energy manager to spearhead some of these programs. 

Why doesn’t every hospital have an energy manager?

Most hospitals are not willing to invest in energy because hospitals are profit centers. At the end of the day, we care about patients, of course, but you can either put money toward a machine that’s going to yield profit within a couple of months, or you can put money into an energy savings. A really good energy project—a great project, an amazing project—will get you savings in a year or two. So, most hospitals face the challenge that it’s more cost-lucrative to put money into equipment. We’re very fortunate. Penn Medicine will and does invest in energy because they see the value of it. Everybody is really starting to see the focus on energy. Not everybody is as lucky as we are here though.