Advocate Aurora Health commits to going green

Advocate Aurora Health announced earlier this month that it plans to run its operations with 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

Advocate Aurora is the first system in Illinois to make such a pledge, but it’s following the path of large systems like Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health, who have committed to going green.

The health systems are driven by a growing awareness of the impact that air pollution and climate change can have on chronic conditions.

Advocate Aurora estimates its efforts will reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 392,657 metric tons – the equivalent of removing more than 84,000 cars from the road each year.

Health News Illinois caught up with Mary Larsen, Advocate Aurora’s director of environmental affairs and sustainability, and Vice President of Facilities Kelly Noel to learn more.

Edited excerpts are below.

HNI: Why is Advocate Aurora making this pledge?

Kelly Noel: A healthy environment equals healthy people. Advocate Aurora Health is the 10th largest health system in the United States. Continuing to improve our health outcomes is an important part of what we’re doing every day.

Mary Larsen: We are also a member of the Health Care Climate Challenge. There are many health systems that are part of its Health Care Climate Council. And like them, we are joining this council and making a commitment that is very similar to commitments being made by other health systems to really be part of the solution of reducing some of the chronic triggers and causes of chronic illness that are related to air pollution and climate change.

HNI: What’s driving this increased interest among health systems in renewable energy?

ML: We are understanding more and more the ability that we have to address health issues beyond when they present at our emergency room or physicians’ offices. The reason that you see more and more health systems jumping in is because they see that connection between their ability to use their purchasing power to have a positive effect on the health of our communities. On the other side of this, we’re starting to see the cost of renewable energy dropping. I think that makes the barrier of cost become less of an issue over time.

KN: I think the other part to note of this is this is not a new initiative to further reduce energy consumption. It’s something that Advocate Aurora Health has been working on for a number of years. Over the last 10 years, the entire organization has reduced their consumption by over 20 percent.

HNI: What’s holding back other systems from making a similar pledge?

KN: I would never want to speak on behalf of any other organization, but I think that there are multiple challenges in healthcare every single day. And you have to prioritize costs and challenges and initiatives, and make sure all of them align. Our scale allows us to have some broader control and impact, and it allows us some opportunities that other systems might not have.

HNI: How was the year 2030 picked?

ML: We really felt the timeline horizon was necessary to help us work with our current electricity providers and organize ourselves around a strategy internally to help us along the continuum to get us to 100 percent. I think it’s very possible that we may reach the goal before that. We certainly are going to move as fast as we can. But, we have to be very sensible and sensitive to the feasibility of making decisions in how we purchase our electricity and/or invest in onsite projects. We are, above all, good stewards of our resources – financial and natural resources.

HNI: What are some examples of where this work has already started?

KN: I can give you some information on where our solar projects are active right now. The Aurora Medical Center in Manitowoc County, the Slinger clinic and the Neenah clinic are three of those sites. We also have geothermal at Sherman Hospital. And then, obviously, all the projects that are in design are considering their options right now – and a number of others.

HNI: Do you expect that this will save money in the long run?

ML: Yes, we certainly do. I think that there are already signs in the market that renewable electricity prices have declined over many years. We already know that the return on investment, or the payback, has become more favorable over the past several years. We know it’s already cheaper than coal. So we have a lot of positive markers projecting that it will not affect our bottom line in a negative way. Certainly there are a lot of variables that are unknown, but the trajectory from all projections looks very positive.

HNI: What do you anticipate being your biggest challenges?

ML: I do see that economic and political factors in the future could potentially affect this. What I mean by that is will there be favorable terms and conditions and power purchase agreements, for instance? We know that the evolution of power purchasing opportunities like that is changing all the time and creativity is being injected into those types of relationships and agreements all the time.

Certainly the question of financial feasibility is another one that may continue to be a challenge or, as we suspect and hope, be less of a challenge over time. So this is going to depend on market conditions and the economic and political winds. We think we know what to expect, but we have to be ready for anything and are very committed to pursuing the goal no matter what.

HNI: What are the next steps?

KN: The first part is really coming up with a plan and strategy overall. We serve a diverse geography. We have regulated and deregulated energy in our territory. So the rules are a little bit different depending on where our facilities are located. The first step is really to figure out the plan of how we get from where we are today to that 2030 goal. The number one easiest way to do that is simply to reduce energy utilization. And all of our sites are doing that now. We will look at stronger strategies to continue to do that.

But then the next level is looking at offsite renewables and onsite renewables where it’s fiscally responsible. We know that we need to work with utilities, talk about what they’re offering other partners in the industry. I think a lot of industries within our geography are doing similar things – so also how do we partner with other partners.


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