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How the climate emergency is being treated in healthcare

Saving sustainable steam for the future


If you were asked what the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions were, it's unlikely that the world's healthcare system would be high up the list. But that's not the case. Being something that's universally needed, it has a significant impact. 

“Health care makes up more than 4.4% of net global climate emissions. If it were a country, it would be the fifth largest climate polluter on the planet.”¹ 

The healthcare industry recognises that climate change is also an important factor for people's health too, seeing it as "…the biggest health threat the world faces this century"². When you think back to the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic, that's an incredible assessment. 

Making Hospitals Sustainable is No Simple Task 

Picture someone coming into your home to conduct an energy audit. The results say that to be sustainable, you must replace your boiler which powers your hot water and central heating. You should throw out your fridge-freezer, washing machine, tumble dryer, and dishwasher and replace them with more energy-efficient appliances. It's time for that cooker to go too, and the hob needs upgrading. And, this needs to happen now, without delay. 

Can you afford to do this all at once? It's unlikely. Yet that's the dilemma facing hospitals and healthcare as they struggle to find immediate ways of becoming more sustainable. For many, especially larger hospitals with more than 300 hundred beds, steam has been a vital part of their day-to-day existence for decades. It's provided heat energy for a multitude of essential tasks, none of which can be lost overnight. 

Usually sourced from a central boilerhouse function, steam provides the most energy-efficient way of heating large, often multi-storey buildings. It makes sure hot water is available for every need and plays a critical role in the sterilisation of vital medical instruments. And, it is currently most likely powered by gas (sometimes with oil as a backup), a fossil fuel that is considered a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Steam's impact on healthcare doesn't just stop with hospitals. The pharmaceutical industry relies on it to ensure its medicines, vaccines, tablets, and creams are of the safest, most effective quality. 

Just imagine the colossal expenditure and interruption involved in ripping out that infrastructure to replace it with something else. Bear in mind, that this could involve the closure of the facility for months whilst the work is completed. No patient care, no more operations, no critical healthcare. It's inconceivable; nor does it have to be the case. 

Why Sustainable Steam has a Future in Healthcare 

The issue isn't steam itself, it's the means of generating it, and how well it's applied within the complex system it serves. That's nothing new. Spirax Sarco has been helping healthcare facilities improve their efficiency with steam systems for a long time, and have achieved significant savings, both in terms of energy and cost. Keeping a complex steam system running efficiently is an ongoing focus for any healthcare facility. Maximising what you have rather than wasting what isn’t needed is one key focal point. A heat exchanger, for example, can capture excess steam and use it to heat water to a temperature of 80°C to heat other areas of the building. 

Decarbonising the power that generates steam is, of course, a critical step. The usual method here is to switch from gas-fired to electricity, whether with a new boiler once the existing equipment reaches end-of-life (remembering that boilers and steam equipment can have a useful life in excess of 40 years), or by retrofitting the burner. Electricity generation itself is rapidly changing to relying more on renewable sources, but in the near term, using electricity will incur more operational costs than gas. That isn’t stopping organisations from acting now, with the UK’s National Health Service recently negotiating a new energy supply deal to ensure 100% renewable electricity across its building portfolio. By procuring renewable electricity, they can also remove the scope 2 emissions associated with electricity use. 

At Spirax Sarco, our focus on the complete system, from the boiler throughout the entire complex, has been able to prove time and time again that steam is healthcare's ally, not adversary. Where vital services like sterilisation are concerned, we've developed specific clean steam generators that deliver the ideal quality steam to safely complete the process, minimising the need for any repeat procedures. 

Another critical part of making the move towards sustainable steam is gathering data in order to make informed decisions. Hospitals need, and want, to become smarter, and digitalisation is widely accepted as key to this goal. It is key to providing a clear picture of the current scenario, creating a viable route towards a sustainable future, and confirming that all is working as it should be.  

The demands on the hospitals of the future are many. Steam has a vital role to play in helping keep these critical elements for society operating as safely, sustainably, and efficiently as possible. 

1: Karliner, J., Slotterback, S., Boyd, R., et all.: Health Care’s Climate Footprint: How the Health Sector contributes to the Global Climate Crisis and Opportunities for Action, 2019
2: Health Care Without Harm: Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, April 2021 

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