In Bismarck, North Dakota, where cold winters and hot summers can put energy bills on life support, St. Alexius Medical Center has a prescription for savings. The oldest health-care provider in North Dakota and a Level II trauma center, St. Alexius has opened a Technology and Education Center committed to reducing the hospital’s carbon footprint, and the 306-bed acute-care medical center has rededicated itself to improving efficiency.

“We’re on the leading-edge of energy conservation,” says Doug Johanson, the director of facilities at St. Alexius, who has been with the medical center for 25 years, before the days of computers. Three years ago St. Alexius brought in Energy Service Group (ESG) of Wayzata, Minnesota, to conduct a full retrocommissioning of the medical center. “We had been pecking away at projects one at a time, spending $300,000 a year, and it was taking forever,” Johanson says. “We decided to spend $3 million and tackle the more difficult stuff.”

ESG’s team examined each air handler, chiller, valve, and gauge to ensure all systems were operating properly. The audit yielded recommendations to change lighting from halogens to efficient fluorescents, replace faucets and toilets with low-flow fixtures, and install variable speed drives on air handlers to save energy when buildings were quiet at night. The result was nearly $500,000 a year in energy savings, a 25 percent reduction in energy expenditures.

“We could have continued the way we were, getting a two- to three-year payback on every project we were doing,” Johanson says. “But we looked at it over a 10-year period and saw we were giving away $2 million in savings. That was the pitch. ‘Do it today, and we’ll save more than we spend.’ It wasn’t a hard sell.”

With a solid case made for spending money to save money, St. Alexius planned the new Technology and Education Center, a new building that would house support departments such as IT, pharmaceutical research, and marketing. Completed in December 2011, the 100,000-square-foot building is one of St. Alexius’s greenest projects to date.

Bismarck’s climate goes through four seasons of weather, so a cost-effective geothermal system was a natural choice for the project. A total of 303 wells were dug to tap the Earth’s natural geothermal energy, and the system is sized to cover all of the heating and cooling needs of the building.

A new data center located on the fourth floor is a big energy-user, but the building uses heat created by the data center to warm the facility. The building’s high-efficiency motion sensor lighting generates less heat and is designed to turn off after a person exits the room. The elevators are the first of their kind in the state; they use a steel band, not a cable to drive the elevators. The regenerative drive is 75 percent more efficient than conventional elevators and converts the energy into electricity, which is then fed back to the building’s power grid.

The new building is operating at approximately a 48 percent energy savings over the rest of the St. Alexius medical campus. The average annual utility cost for all buildings at the medical center is $2.82 per square foot for electricity, natural gas, and water; the new Technology and Education Center is $1.47 per square foot. For its efforts, St. Alexius was recently named to Becker’s Hospital Review’s 2012 list of 100 Great Hospitals to Know.

Throughout the St. Alexius campus, initiatives continue to address deficiencies, which can be plentiful with some buildings dating back to 1914. In 2011, the hospital system installed 60 variable-speed drives for air handlers to reduce usage during nonpeak hours and added more than 600 motion sensors in offices, conference areas, and meeting rooms. Johanson says the constant monitoring contributes to a better patient experience and, ultimately, lower health-care costs.

“You can’t walk away from systems once you have them working correctly,” Johanson says. “You’ve got to go into the control side and see what it’s doing at all times, otherwise the savings goes away. You watch it, and it pays for itself.”