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Energy saving in general practice

By Dr Lisa McNamee - 24th Sep 2023

energy saving

Energy usage is often responsible for the highest non-clinical emissions footprint in healthcare facilities,
but steps can be taken to tackle the issue

Most GP surgeries can make significant cost and emissions savings if they focus on reducing their energy use.

The first step towards saving energy in the practice is measuring current use patterns. Without accurate data on energy usage, it’s impossible to target the areas most in need of savings. A smart meter will give you an accurate breakdown of your electricity usage, some of which are accurate to 30-minute intervals. This will allow you to monitor the peaks of usage, but also identify if there is energy being wasted outside of working hours.

Once an area of energy wastage is identified, it can be addressed. It’s important to make sure that the practice’s energy bills are always based on actual readings and not estimates. This will allow you to track usage more accurately in real time and help prevent big surprise bills at the end of the year. Switching energy provider to one using a higher percentage of renewable energy can lead to an immediate reduction in carbon emissions.

Saving energy

Heating is a big source of energy wastage. Check room temperatures to ensure you are not wasting energy by excessively heating certain areas. Setting an automatic thermostat can prevent staff fiddling with controls during the day, which can lead to overheating of certain spaces. Time switches without local controls are the most energy efficient thermostat systems. It’s important to ensure that the thermostat is not located in direct sunlight or in a draughty area. It should also be programmed to keep the building a few degrees cooler at night when it is unoccupied. The thermostat should be set to have a ‘deadzone’ of three degrees to avoid heating/cooling being activated simultaneously as this is a big source
of energy wastage. Check radiators are not being blocked by furniture or curtains that are preventing heat from circulating effectively.

Equipment usage is a large source of energy use. Ensure all computers and devices are turned off when not being used, check power saving mode settings and reduce the time to power saving mode kicking in if possible.

Check the energy efficiency rating of the equipment in the practice, particularly large energy users like refrigerators. If it is several years old, it is worth considering if an upgrade to a more energy efficient model is more prudent. Check that fridges are not close to windows or radiators as these heat sources can cause the fridge to have to work harder to maintain cool temperatures and can both increase your energy bills and shorten the lifespan of the fridge.

Smaller computer monitors can use less energy. If purchasing or changing computer equipment, factor in long-term energy usage as part of the decision-making process.

Lighting should preferably be motion-activated in communal corridors or less-used areas. For those manual switches, practices should allocate responsibility for checking lights are switched off at the end of the day before the building is vacated. Reminder stickers for switching off lights/equipment may be helpful. If the practice has not already done so, switching all lights over to LEDs will significantly reduce energy use. For outside the practice, outdoor solar powered lights or motion detector LEDs are the most energy effective.

Upgrading the fabric of the building itself can be an effective way of reducing energy waste. A regular maintenance check of windows and doors can reduce draughts and leaks. Reducing open doors in the practice and using draught excluders or a draught lobby at the main entrance can reduce the heat energy leaving the building.

Increasing the insulation in the building’s roof or adding external insulation is a way to dramatically reduce the practice’s energy losses. The cost of these can be offset by government grants, but do require some financial outlay. Adding triple glazing in larger or north-facing windows can further reduce the energy loss from the building itself. Phone lines and printer/shredders should also be looked at. If you are a practice that is still using an on-site phone server, switching to a cloud-based system may offer energy savings.

There is a certain amount of printing/shredding that is inevitable, but can these be reduced in the practice? Printers and shredders are both energy intensive to use.

Most practices have already switched to digital communication methods where possible.

Email optimisation is something that all of us can work on. Large email signatures, extensive copy lists and storing large attachments are all inefficient uses of energy. While going through all emails and deleting them individually is likely to use more energy than the email storage itself, searching for your largest email attachments and deleting these is likely to be energy saving.

If there are practice-wide subscriptions to unnecessary mailing lists, consider a group unsubscribe. Does the practice email documents to patients? If so, consider the file sizes that are being sent. Can these be reduced without impacting on quality? If the practice’s email signature carries images, this is using more energy and may be unnecessary.

Generating energy

Now that Irish businesses can finally sell energy back to the national grid, generating your own energy makes financial sense as well as being a way to reduce energy emissions. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, along with the necessary inverters and battery storage, are the most accessible way to generate your own energy.

Launched on 4 July 2023, the Solar PV scheme allows Irish businesses to obtain grants for solar PV installation through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI). Initial grant value is €2,400 up to 6kWp with additional top-up amounts for larger installations. All Irish businesses are eligible to apply. As solar generates energy during the day while the practice has the greatest energy need, it actually makes even more sense to add solar panels to a work premises than a private home where most usage will be in the evenings. 

There are other sustainable energy business grants available such as those for commercial heat pumps and excellence in energy efficiency design. There is a €2,000 grant available towards the cost of a professional energy audit. The eligibility criteria for these individual schemes can be checked on the SEAI website.

Staff awareness

Targeting energy efficiency is a laudable goal, but without staff buy-in it is unlikely to succeed. Discussing why the practice is taking this approach and getting staff on board initially is crucial. If the practice manager and administrators are on board with energy efficiency drives, they are most likely to succeed so it is important to bring them in early.

Develop an easy-to-follow practice policy for energy use and position it prominently in staff areas. If a practice has reduced their energy consumption, they can magnify the effects of this by communicating its success to patients. This community-based role modelling may lead to others deciding to do the same at their own homes and businesses.

Another strategy for staff engagement is adding an energy usage line item to practice meetings – these would be weekly reminders of areas for improvement. Areas that are going well can keep motivation high among staff.

The practice should have a policy on new purchases to prioritise equipment that uses less energy. Higher energy rated equipment may have a higher upfront cost, but likely will lead to savings over the lifetime of the product.

Resources

Dr Lisa McNamee Member of Irish Doctors for the Environment’s Primary Care Sustainability Group

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