Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center officially fired up a new boiler Wednesday that burns wood chips and is projected to save the health system $500,000 a year.
The 800-horsepower boiler also represents nearly 40 percent of Gundersen’s goal of 100 percent energy independence by next year, officials said at a ceremony unveiling the $6.5 million project on its La Crosse campus.
Gundersen CEO Jeff Thompson said the project fits a mission beyond the goal of controlling health care costs.
“Gundersen believes our responsibility is to the breadth of the population, not just within the walls of our hospitals or clinics,” Thompson said. “It means the health and well-being of the whole community … keeping the people and the economy healthy.”
The boiler creates steam for use throughout the hospital for heat and other needs in areas such as sterilizing equipment, providing humidification and running the laundry and the kitchen, as well powering as a turbine to generate electricity for the hospital.
The boiler — called biomass because it uses natural, renewable resources — supplants three boilers that dated to 1971 and needed to be replaced, said Jeff Rich, executive director of GL Envision, the health system’s energy subsidiary.
“When we looked at all of our options, installing a biomass boiler was the right choice,” Rich said. “Not only will the biomass boiler save the organization an estimated $500,000 a year, it will help us reduce carbon dioxide and coal emissions.”
The savings include about $350,000 in natural gas costs and $150,000 from electricity the project’s turbine will provide instead of having to buy it, Rich said.
The boiler’s exhaust system sets “the gold standard on emission control,” Rich said during a tour of the facility. “We’re a hospital, and we don’t want to cause respiratory problems.”
The Coulee Region is rich in renewable resources such as wood and recyclables from farms, prompting some to call it the “Saudi Arabia of biomass,” Rich said.
“We can make our own home-grown energy in our area and create jobs,” he said.
A $225,000 bioenergy grant from the U.S. Forestry Service through the Wisconsin Department of Administration contributed to the project, Rich said.
CEO Thompson highlighted the economic shot in the arm from using local resources.
“Instead of getting heat from Texas natural gas or coal from Wyoming,” he said, “we are getting it from wood chips in western Wisconsin.”
That prompted Cathy Stepp, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, to label Gundersen as “the poster child for job creation, economic enhancement and environmental protection all at the same time.”
The wood chips come from Lambert Forest Products in Warrens and Nelson Hardwood Co. in Prairie du Chien, with transportation provided partly by Lambert and partly by Olson Trucking in Holmen.
Lambert Forest Products owner Troy Lambert welcomed the business, saying in an interview, “It’s great to have another market to move our product.”
Lambert said the venture could bring his 30-employee company another $50,000 to $100,000 a year.
Kent Nelson, co-owner of Nelson Hardwood, said his company previously trucked chips 140 miles to a paper mill in Nekoosa, Wis., compared with about 60 to La Crosse.
“Creating a viable chip market close to home means we can spend money on other improvements to the plant instead of trucking costs,” said Nelson, whose company has 47 employees.