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Perdue orders agencies to cut energy usage
Some Hall groups have already taken steps toward conservation
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Dane Henry, vice president of support services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, explains why it’s a challenge for hospitals to conserve energy.

Last week, Gov. Perdue launched his "Governor’s Energy Challenge," ordering all of Georgia’s state agencies to cut energy usage 15 percent by 2020.

Perdue also encouraged local government agencies and businesses to voluntarily meet the same goal. He said the measure "will lessen Georgia’s dependence on traditional energy sources, support the economy and improve the environment."

Though 12 years might seem an overly generous amount of time to achieve the targeted reduction, officials felt that a shorter time frame would be unrealistic.

"Our state energy council identified 15 percent by 2020 as an appropriate and achievable goal," said Shane Hix, spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority, which is in charge of implementing the Energy Challenge.

"We’ll be doing energy audits of state facilities to help us identify energy saving opportunities," Hix said. "We’ll focus on sustainable design for new buildings, and emphasize energy efficiency in renovations and equipment replacement. We’ll also look at renewable and ‘green’ energy options as they become available."

The Energy Challenge, which is one component of Perdue’s Conserve Georgia initiative, also includes a public awareness campaign to educate people about energy conservation.

State agencies are beginning to look at what operational changes they’ll need to make in order to meet the 15 percent goal.

"We are going to work on conserving our energy and gas usage, like the governor directed," said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

She noted that the DOT began doing things differently even before the governor’s announcement.

"We have the ‘alternate workweek,’" she said. "Some office staff are working four 10-hour days, so they have one less day to commute."

But when your job is to build roads, you can’t stay cooped up indoors.

"It is a little bit difficult for us (to conserve fuel)," Pope said, "because we drive to the job site and stay in the trucks and use our equipment. But we’re combining trips whenever we can, and we’re encouraging carpooling to meetings and job sites."

Locally, no agencies or businesses have committed to following Perdue’s suggestion, because they’re only just beginning to learn about it. But many say they’re already reducing their energy consumption.

"We’re in pretty good shape," said Jim Hamblen, superintendent of lands and buildings for the city of Gainesville. "Around 2000, the city made a lot of changes."

He said the city’s largest structures, including the Joint Administration Building, the Public Safety Building and the Community Service Center, were switched to a computerized climate-control system, and more efficient lighting was installed.

Though buildings can be altered with technology, saving automotive fuel depends more on changing people’s behavior.

"The city is being more restrictive about driving (city-owned) vehicles home," Hamblen said. "And after Hurricane Katrina (which created a temporary fuel shortage), the city put out a memo asking people not to (unnecessarily) idle their vehicles."

Brett Jockell, building maintenance superintendent for Hall County, said county government has been working to shave its electricity use for the past five or six years.

"There’s no formal plan, but it’s an ongoing effort," he said. "We’ve managed to keep energy consumption really low in the new courthouse complex."

Jockell said agencies that are already doing a good job on conservation may find it tough to meet Perdue’s directive.

"I don’t know that we would be able to cut another 15 percent," he said.

As for businesses, their ability to reduce energy usage depends on what type of work they do. Northeast Georgia Health System, Hall County’s largest private employer, faces some unique challenges. Unlike office buildings that can turn off the lights at night, a hospital never closes.

"We constantly have to be on," said Dane Henry, vice president of support services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. "Administrative areas may staff down during the evening hours, but the rest of the hospital is going all the time. Our electricity bill is well over $1 million a year."

Some sections of the medical center’s main campus are more than 50 years old, and it’s not feasible to retrofit those areas.

"A lot of heating and cooling units are so reliable and durable that they’re still functioning, so you don’t want to spend money to replace them," said Henry. "Unfortunately, they’re not as energy efficient as newer equipment. Many coolers have only two modes: on and off."

But the main hospital is in the midst of a massive expansion right now. The North Patient Tower, with about 1.2 million square feet of floor space, is set to open in early 2009, and the Women & Children’s Pavilion may be ready even sooner.

With a new building, the health system could start from scratch and aim for maximum energy efficiency. Before either of the new projects got under way, a central energy plant had to be built to serve them. Henry said precise thermostat controls will allow the hospital to more easily regulate energy usage.

Rudy Lonergan, director of facilities development for the medical center, said the new construction took advantage of innovation.

"The North Patient Tower has a heat recovery unit," he said. "It collects waste heat (such as from exhaust fans) and uses it to preheat cold air that’s brought in from the outside."

Henry said cooling units also won’t have to work as hard, because less wasted energy is being generated inside the hospital. "As equipment has evolved from mechanical to digital, it’s inherently more efficient," he said. "New CT scanners put out a lot less heat than the older ones."

But the North Patient Tower is just a taste of what’s to come. The health system is planning to build an entirely new hospital near Braselton, with completion expected by 2012. "Green building" concepts are being incorporated into the design from the beginning.

"We hope that our South Hall campus will serve as a model of environmental design for hospitals around the country," Henry said.