The built environment in the United Kingdom is responsible for up to 42% of our carbon footprint. With the UK’s public sector containing the country’s biggest property portfolio, there is a clear opportunity to make significant change across the NHS built environment to accelerate the course to net zero. If we are to consider the climate crisis as the most significant threat to humanity, taking action to improve efficiency across the buildings we live and work in should be considered an imminent priority. This will be integral if the UK is to retain its reputation as a world leader in sustainability.

In October 2020, the government took the first steps to address this by introducing the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. In order to meet the scheme’s aims of cutting public building emissions by 75% by 2037, ministers have allocated over £400 million as part of phase 3. This increased budget will be utilised to decarbonise 144 public sector bodies within England, with some examples being schools, leisure centres and, critically, hospitals.

The NHS has already pledged to reduce its carbon footprint by 80% by 2032, with a view to becoming the world’s first carbon net-zero national health system. However, healthcare in England is still responsible for around 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. If the average car produces around one tonne of CO2 for every 2,500 miles, the health service’s annual footprint is equal to around 20 million cars driving from John o’ Groats, at the very tip of Scotland, all the way to Sicily, at the very bottom of Italy.

Of this total footprint, healthcare buildings themselves contribute 15% of the NHS’s emissions. This not only impacts its emissions but its resources, too. Altogether, the organisation spends an ever-increasing half a billion pounds on energy each year—money that could instead go towards training doctors, hiring nurses, and meeting critical patient care. A rethink is needed to create more sustainable hospital buildings that will both drive down energy costs and help the NHS comply with net zero targets, without compromising its care. The NHS is incredible at saving lives—but can it help us save the planet, too? Let’s take a look.

Addressing complex requirements across estates

First, managers need to be able to identify which sites need modernising, and what areas can be improved to provide immediate benefit. Enhancements to healthcare clinics aren’t as simple as standard buildings: NHS hospital trusts have very complex and specific utility requirements, such as the critical need for reliable power, similarly reliable heat and ventilation for the comfort and care of patients which have dramatic effect on patient stay times and experience. So, facilities management teams must have access to analytics and software that monitors and regulates patient care alongside energy usage.

Building software platforms offer a suite of analytical services. They provide real-time insights into a building’s operations by consistently tracking the performance of systems and appliances. So, plugging this software into all aspects of a hospital is a crucial step in its decarbonisation roadmap. It helps leaders to automate and centralise energy and sustainability data collection, establish and track carbon, water, and waste footprints, streamline reporting, and access and apply data insights with confidence. This way, leaders can measure current performance, plan annual targets, and define future success. Plus, insights from the analytics will then help them to mobilise their next steps and well as realise resource benefits from condition based approaches.

Breathing new life into legacy infrastructure

The second phase of a hospital’s decarbonisation roadmap focuses on the deployment of physical solutions. Historically, healthcare facilities have used carbon-intensive, fossil-fuel-based energy to power heating, transportation, and building requirements. So, hospitals need to replace systems, like gas-powered heating and petrol transport, with newer and cleaner alternatives, like electric heat pumps and vehicles.

Building-wide electrification then allows hospitals to solely use energy from renewable sources, which is not only more sustainable but also increasingly cost-effective. Trusts can purchase this energy from external providers, or even produce it themselves. Generating renewable power, such as via solar panels, and then integrating it with microgrid technology further supercharges a hospital’s energy resilience, sustainability, and efficiency. Leaders can even also new revenue streams by storing and selling any excess electricity back to the grid during peak demand—maximising resources that can be rerouted to patient care.

A forensic understanding of the built environment

Finally, the installation of a modern building management system (BMS) is key to maintaining a safe, efficient environment for both patients and staff. Many hospitals already employ a BMS, but newer, advanced systems unify power consumption, low-energy lighting, microgrids, electric vehicle charging, IoT, and more, all to be controlled by a single system giving the user the right information in one place.

The system will monitor the building and flag any inefficiencies or faults. Then, managers can make improvements themselves, or even automate the software to address them, transforming visibility and control over a hospital’s footprint. Equally important is the ability to report on the building’s progress. Patients, employees, and particularly the government are becoming increasingly strict and conscious of sustainability. A centralised BMS helps management to quickly and easily publish accurate, watertight data on the hospital’s performance, ensuring compliance with the latest low-carbon requirements.

Healthcare and the climate crisis are inextricably linked

Climate change isn’t simply driving the rate and risk of severe environmental disasters. It’s also threatening human health and access to care. Currently, hospitals worldwide are stuck in somewhat of a catch-22—the emissions they produce through caring for people today are then likely to harm humans further down the line.

The good news is that there is a wealth of opportunity to instigate meaningful change. The introduction of new technologies ensures that every decision made across estates is data driven. Downtime is significantly reduced and decision-making processes are streamlined when facilities managers are able to harness tools to monitor energy usage in real time. The facts speak for themselves: one NHS trust reported a 30% reduction in energy use after HVAC optimization alone. For action to happen across the entire healthcare industry, it will require genuine commitment to the well-being of patients and the planet. As the NHS looks to meet ambitious net zero targets, all that we’ve achieved so far must only be the start of industry-wide change.

By Kas Mohammed, VP of Digital Energy, Schneider Electric UK&I 

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