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Healthcare and the Energy Trilemma





Perhaps more than any other sector in the UK, both the public and private healthcare industry faces huge pressure in balancing the varying challenges that make up the ‘energy trilemma’. The current energy crisis has resulted in spiralling costs that have put intolerable pressure on almost all energy end users, but looking for solutions that reduce costs isn’t as simple as just opting for the cheapest option. Making the wrong decision risks compromising a business or trust’s progress towards net zero or, worse, compromising the emergency power needed for critical services.

Reducing Costs of Healthcare Energy

In August, NHS leaders called on Government to take decisive action on rising energy costs, not due to the significant cost pressures on the NHS, but as a matter of public health. The energy crisis and a dramatic increase in the domestic energy cap will significantly increase pressures on NHS services, at a time where it is still struggling to catch up on the significant backlog generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rising energy costs are biting across the NHS, however, as well as with private healthcare providers. Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust revealed in August that it is facing a £4 million increase in energy costs over the next financial year, and many other trusts face similarly steep increases. 

Energy services such as procurement are struggling to impact on rising costs, and increasingly Trusts are turning to technology solutions to unlock savings. These include energy efficiency measures, reducing the total amount of energy consumed, and on-site generation measures such as solar PV or wind to generate electricity or heat pumps or CHP to produce heat.

Healthcare and Net Zero

Fortunately, many of these energy efficiency and distributed generation options also bolster the sustainability performance of a site. The NHS has committed to strict carbon reduction requirements, with Trusts across the board expected to show clear and ongoing progress towards achieving net zero. This increasingly also applies to suppliers and private healthcare providers, who will need to showcase their own sustainability credentials to continue to work alongside the NHS.

By 2032 at the latest, NHS Trusts are required to collectively achieve an 80% reduction in emissions. While this is already a significant challenge, particularly as Trusts get closer to the target and steps to further reduce carbon become more complex and often expensive, the energy crisis risks undermining progress. With limited budgets, it could be tempting to invest in short term cost reductions at the expense of a long-term net zero strategy. At least one NHS trust has mulled the idea of switching to diesel generation rather than mains electricity, which could represent a saving of up to 75% on short term energy costs, but would leave their sustainability credentials in tatters.

Security of Energy Supply

Ensuring emergency and backup power is available in the event of power disruption is at the heart of any healthcare energy strategy. While other sectors could be badly disrupted and risk loss of productivity, profitability and effectiveness, for healthcare a failure in energy security could cost lives.

Typically, this is achieved through a combination of emergency power in the form of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to prevent short-term disruption, and backup generation, typically generators, in the case of a more prolonged blackout.

Both of these technologies have a good track record within the NHS, and have prevented power disruption from impacting on critical care such as operating theatres of intensive care for decades. However, both increasingly risk compromising other areas of the energy trilemma. Fossil fuel generators greatly inflate carbon emissions associated with energy use. UPS typically have losses of around 10%, increasing energy costs and carbon emissions as a result.

Battery energy storage solutions are being used by a growing number of trusts as a more cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternative. Providing the same instantaneous emergency power as a UPS, BESS also has much lower electrical losses and contributes to more intelligent energy management elsewhere across a site. When integrated with on-site generation and intelligent energy controls, BESS can form the cornerstone of a smart microgrid that can keep critical care in operation even during prolonged power disruption, removing the need for carbon-intensive generators.

Find out more about how Powerstar supports organisations in the healthcare sector here


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