Sustainability in the UK National Health Service: A Case for Solar Power

nhs solar power By Alex Mungo

It is no longer news that the “big six” have upped energy prices by another 10 percent, after previously promising no increases. With energy prices steadily rising by 7 percent every year, we are on course for much slimmer accounts in the next five years. The impact of our excess energy consumption can be readily seen in the environment. Freak storms, weeks of rain and extreme snowfall are all byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

In the midst of these, one reads about government cutting funding for local councils. It is also quite disheartening to learn that the U.K. government has once again reduced the budget for the National Health Service (NHS). For a government that claims to be committed to sustainability and championing renewable energy use, the government doesn’t seem to be putting their money where their mouth is.

The health care sector and climate action

The path that should be taken to achieve sustainability is obvious. It is, basically: Look for energy inefficiencies, curb them and enjoy a cleaner environment.

Simple, right? Apparently not. Even with the Climate Change Act of 2008, and programs that try to enforce it, hospitals still account for 3 percent of the country’s carbon footprint. With the average hospital’s energy expenses rising from £1 million to £1.5 million due to rising national energy costs, the financial black hole common in public services rears its ugly head again.

Between hospitals haemorrhaging taxpayers’ funds away by paying above average energy  expenses and hospitals with shoddy energy monitoring practices, more than £30 million was squandered in 2013. The government’s knee-jerk response was to roll out budget cuts across the NHS.

Drastic budget cuts are, in my opinion, the wrong approach. It is like bolting the stable door after the horse has escaped. The budget cuts have a knock-on effect of diminished patient care, where hospital management justifies reduced manpower by claiming their budgets have been reduced.

Another seemingly obvious question now becomes: Why doesn’t the government plug these holes in the NHS expenses by embarking on sustainability programs? One reason is that, as a nation, the United Kingdom is skilled at using red tape to hinder its own progress — except when it is in favor of a select few (fracking, anyone?). Add this to the fact that the NHS itself is run by extremely conservative and risk-averse individuals. What you get is a health service that is firmly stuck in the last century.

Alternative power and energy efficiency

It’s not all doom and gloom, as the start of 2014 has brought on another push towards achieving and maintaining a sustainable environment (let us hope this lasts longer than most New Year’s resolutions).

From Ministers calling for the establishment of a solar estate to hospitals raising funds to install solar panels themselves, I predict there will be more and more green buildings and living in 2014.

Hospitals are notorious for energy waste. Their one legitimate excuse is the myriad of machines constantly in use. Add this to the fact that they are connected and turned on around the clock, you can begin to appreciate the amount of energy used up. That being said, they can usually get a grip on their energy inefficiency by assembling a team and carrying out an audit of all their activities. Activities ranging from shortening ambulance routes to reduce CO2 emissions, to temperature control, to validating the green credentials of suppliers should be examined thoroughly.

Addressing challenges with renewables

Alternate renewable power sources abound, but their use is hindered by bureaucratic red tape, and the sometimes ludicrous decisions of top-level management. An example of this is the installation of six noisy wind turbines on the roof of a hospital in Lanarkshire. With the noise from the turbines, people in the surrounding area could barely carry function. The patients fared even worse as it interfered with their getting better. After two years, they were removed. Total cost to the council?  £120,000.

Solar panels are a popular option that have been used all over the world. With over 500,000 solar panel installations taking place across the U.K., it is a technology that is viable and here to stay. Even with the dilly-dallying of the government around the feed-in traffic, more and more people are realizing the potential. The Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais in Haiti is renowned as the world’s largest solar hospital. It has successfully offered primary care to over 180,000 people for the past nine months.

While it doesn’t always have to involve setting up mass arrays of panels or erecting 300-foot turbines, we can move towards being more energy efficient by doing the simple things, like switching off the office lights at the close of work. Every day.

Achieving and maintaining sustainability in the NHS will go a long way toward keeping expenses down and saving money. It will help free up much-needed funds for better patient care, and also be of huge benefit on the environment as a whole. And that’s what the triple bottom line is all about, right?

Image credit: U.K. National Health Service

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