By Mary Grauerholz
Kaiser Permanente turns to renewable energy to create a healthier environment.
To witness the profound effects of climate change, look no further than California’s Central Valley, where a record drought has left an eerily parched, dust-blown landscape. Scientists in California, the home state of healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente, are sounding dire warnings that unless greenhouse gases are vastly reduced, conditions are expected to worsen.
The effects of climate change, such as those found in the Central Valley, have the potential for great harm to human health, both directly and indirectly. Kaiser Permanente, headquartered in Oakland, California, has a long history of linking the environment to human health. Now the healthcare provider and not-for-profit health plan, already a leader in green energy, will take another major step forward and purchase enough renewable energy to meet half of its electricity consumption in California.
Between two separate deals with NextEra Energy Resources and NRG Energy, solar and wind power will replace much of Kaiser Permanente’s need for fossil fuels, significantly reducing greenhouse gases, a known contributor to climate change. Kaiser Permanente facilities—including 38 hospitals and more than 600 outpatient medical offices countrywide—emit more than 800,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year. The facilities use almost 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year.
“We see climate change as a health issue,” says Ramé Hemstreet, Kaiser Permanente’s chief energy officer. “We think this is a tangible example of improving the health of the community we serve.” Purchasing renewable energy is one outcome of the organization’s bigger goal: a pledge in a 2012 Sustainable Energy Policy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by almost a third, by the year 2020 (from a 2008 baseline). “That’s an absolute goal, despite the fact that we are adding members and building new facilities,” Hemstreet says. “Buying renewable energy is a big step in reaching it.” The wind and solar projects, in fact, will enable Kaiser Permanente to meet its goal three years earlier than expected.
By purchasing solar and wind power, Kaiser Permanente will do more than just reduce its reliance on carbon-based fuels; it also will reduce the water required to produce the electricity. “It’s a win-win,” Hemstreet says.
Climate change impacts human health directly and indirectly, Hemstreet says. Hotter days result in injuries and illnesses. Storms threaten public safety. Degrading air quality likely causes more respiratory disease, such as asthma. Warmer weather, as well, creates a change in pathogens, possibly changing the nature of disease—as Hemstreet says, creating “a larger range for certain diseases.”
Construction on the wind farm and solar installations that will supply the alternative energy is underway, Hemstreet says. The Golden Hills Wind Project, in Alameda County in Northern California, will be supplying energy later this year, after existing turbines are replaced with more efficient and more avian-friendly turbines. Solar energy will be provided by the Blythe Solar Power Project in Southern California’s Riverside County. It is expected to be operational by mid-2016.
NRG Renew, a subsidiary of NRG Energy, Inc., will install solar panels at as many as 170 Kaiser Permanente facilities, which includes medical offices, hospitals, and clinics. As much as 70 megawatts of on site solar will be produced through these solar photovoltaic arrays, primarily on carports and other parking structures that accommodate a combined 20,000 parking spaces.
Besides reducing the carbon footprint, Kaiser Permanente’s move toward renewable energy will save water. Wind and solar energy require essentially no water to operate, thereby not polluting water resources or threatening other needs for water, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In comparison, fossil fuels require a great deal of water, and some forms, such as coal mining and natural gas drilling, can pollute sources of drinking water. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that extracts natural gas also requires large amounts of water.
Kaiser Permanente’s renewable-energy project is another step toward a safer, healthier environment and a deeper expression of the organization’s long-held understanding of a link between environmental health and human health.
As early as the 1960s, Kaiser Permanente staff questioned the role of the environment in human health. In 1961, staff members invited Rachel Carson, author of the groundbreaking environmentally themed book, Silent Spring, to speak to its staff physicians and scientists. More recently, Kaiser Permanente formed a partnership with Health Care Without Harm and the Business Renewables Center, begun by the Rocky Mountain Institute, to help the healthcare industry and the rest of the country’s business community develop more renewable energy resources.
Kaiser Permanente hopes to inspire other healthcare organizations to take a leadership role in reducing the potentially devastating consequences of climate change. In fact, it is the organization’s responsibility to help lead the way, Hemstreet says. “We hope to set the example for others in the healthcare community,” he says.
There are other healthcare organizations making an effort, Hemstreet adds, pointing to Gundersen Health Systems in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and its environmental program, Envision. “They’ve been a leader,” Hemstreet says. But compared with Kaiser Permanente’s enrollment of almost 10 million members, Gundersen is small. “I’m quite confident that the total amount of renewable energy that Kaiser Permanente is purchasing is larger than any other healthcare organization in the U.S.,” says Hemstreet.
It’s not too late to turn the ship around, Hemstreet and others agree. One study, by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, considered the feasibility and impact of generating 80 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050. The conclusion: Global-warming emissions from electricity production could be reduced by approximately 80 percent.
Hemstreet sounds a note of optimism. “I certainly think we have to look now at how we’re going to adapt to a changing climate,” he says. “I think there’s still time to avoid a cataclysmic effect.”