UCI Health's Efforts to Heal the Environment

Green efforts have targeted sustainable electricity, reduced medical gas use and electric grounds equipment.

By Dan Hounsell, Senior Editor

Most institutional and commercial organizations have undertaken projects and programs that aim to minimize their facilities’ impact on the environment. Many have gone further and revamped everything from purchasing to operations to improve their sustainability. 

Only a select few organizations, however, have made sustainability a centerpiece of their new and existing facilities from top to bottom. UCI Health is one of these facilities. The clinical enterprise of the University of California Irvine has been recognized by Practice Greenhealth as a national leader in environmental sustainability, winning two Circle of Excellence awards for energy and climate. The awards honor the highest-performing hospitals nationwide in each area. Winners must achieve at least its 'Greenhealth Partner for Change' award status and demonstrate outstanding performance and metrics in a specific sustainability impact area. 

For Joe Brothman, UCI Health’s director of facilities and general services, such recognition comes partly as a result of several projects in which he and his department have been deeply involved. 

Green and growing 

Brothman’s 200-person department is responsible for a range of facilities — some more than a century old — and the portfolio is growing.  

“Our hospital space is just over 2.6 million square feet, and we have a total of over 50 buildings that we manage throughout the county, including medical office buildings, clinics and ambulatory surgery centers,” says Brothman, who oversees facilities management, grounds, plant operations, parking and transportation services, environmental health and safety and emergency management. “We have a main medical center campus that was originally the county hospital facility. It's over 100 years old.  

“Hospitals are always under construction, so it seems like that number always increases. We're going to be adding about 200 more beds in a couple of years in Irvine when we finish up our new site.” 

Brothman’s involvement in ICI Health’s sustainability efforts includes both planning and performing. 

“I'm rarely the person who's lifting the hammer, but I'm often the person who's identifying what needs to get done and obtaining the means for us to do it,” Brothman says.  

“I oversee the utilities and a lot of the greenhouse gas-emitting operations, so we're primarily the group that is operationalizing endeavors that have been identified and approved by our leadership team and our sustainability group for implementation. We also have a role in developing the goals and the strategies to achieve those goals.” 

Power and ORs 

Brothman cites two facility-related efforts that have been especially successful in delivering sustainability benefits to the organization. The first involves a shift to 100 percent sustainable electricity. 

“Over the last few years, we have been able to procure electricity that has been sustainably produced,” he says. “Starting in 2021-2022, our portfolio for procurement was 100 percent sustainable. We don't have any photovoltaics, and we actually got rid of our fuel cell. That allowed us to purchase only green-produced electricity on the open market.” 

Initially, the program drew skeptics. 

“When we got rid of our natural gas line for our fuel cells, we were able to actually go to 100 percent sustainably produced electricity,” he says. “When you read it initially that we got rid of our fuel cell, most people said, ‘That's a big bummer. You're not able to utilize that.’ Actually for us, it was the opposite. The fuel cell we had was hindering our ability to be more green than we could be. That's because we're able to select the type of electricity that we're buying.” 

The second effort, called Greening the OR, focused on the use of medical gases. 

“We have a workgroup championed and managed by clinicians in our OR who are extremely motivated for sustainability initiatives,” Brothman says. “Many of the goals within the Greening the OR task force or committee involved looking at nitrous oxide utilization, waste production, and other areas where sustainable objectives are able to be championed or followed through.” 

Nitrous oxide, along with methane and carbon dioxide, are the biggest human-related threat to the ozone layer. 

“Our new hospital won't have a pipe nitrous oxide system,” he says. “That group was able to do a deep dive into our utilization and our purchases. We were able to design our new hospital to meet the reduced demand of nitrous oxide systems in the OR. Nitrous oxide not only is extremely expensive and a greenhouse gas-emitting agent but also is being utilized less with anesthesia products nowadays. We’re able to get by with small tanks, which we're able to manage better and have less waste.” 

Greener grounds 

Beyond those high-profile projects, Brothman points to another sustainability effort that has gotten less publicity but that nonetheless has delivered tangible sustainability benefits. 

“Last year, we electrified all of our yard equipment, including mowers and blowers,” he says. “We did a deep dive into what our grounds team is being exposed to and how we could electrify that team. 

“You wouldn't believe all the benefits from that small change. It was a very minimal monetary output that had a huge benefit, not only for the groundskeepers via reduced emission exposure, reduced noise exposure, weight reduction, and reduced exposure to chemicals during their maintenance. And the weight of the equipment is lower, so the burden of the staff to utilize that is lower.” 

Just as importantly for a healthcare organization, the benefits extended to the health and wellbeing of patients. 

“It also benefited our patients in terms of less exposure to greenhouse gases and fumes for patients who might be susceptible to that kind of environment.” he says. “It's quieter. We're able to work longer hours because we're not disrupting our neighbors.” 

The environmental benefits have not come at the expense of productivity or quality.  

“A lot of people said you don't get the same horsepower (with electric equipment). But the equipment is up to par now,” he says. “You're able to get commercial grade results from a lot of electrified equipment. It's great for the staff, it's great for the people, and it's great at a hospital.” 

Not surprisingly, UCI Health's sustainability efforts are continuing, and Brothman is looking to bring his staff along. 

“The new facility that we're building in Irvine is going to be 100 percent electrified,” Brothman says. “There is no combustion on site, and it’s one of the first academic medical centers in the world to be a non-combustion central plant, a fully electrified central plant. 

“Our team is ramping up to be able to manage that site. We're looking at staff development programs so our boiler operators aren't going to be technologied out of a job. We want to expand their scope to be systems operators instead of just steam oil boiler operators.”

Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facilities market. He has more than 30 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management. 

March 22, 2023

Topic Area: Sustainable Operations

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