The Roberts File
- Director, corporate infrastructure support – energy, at Atrium Health, Charlotte, N.C.
- Region 3 board member for the American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE)
- Co-chair of the ASHE sustainability committee
- American Hospital Association certification advisory council member
- Speaker on energy and sustainability
- Past president of the North Carolina Healthcare Engineers Association (NCHEA)
- Atrium Health named 2018 Energy Star Partner of the Year
- Atrium Health named winner of eight ASHE Energy to Care awards at various Atrium facilities
- Pineville facility in Charlotte named 2018 ASHRAE Healthcare Technology award winner
- Past NCHEA sustainability liaison to ASHE, obtaining elite-chapter status each year
- Virginia Polytechnic Institute, bachelor of science in mechanical engineering
When Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System), Charlotte, N.C., recently was named an Energy Star Partner of the Year, Michael D. Roberts, PE, SASHE, CHFM, CHE, director, corporate infrastructure support – energy, marked a milestone in an energy-saving journey that began six years ago. Now, he talks to HFM about it.
How did you come to work in the health care field?
After working in the power-generation industry and as a design professional consultant, I moved into facility management because I was attracted to the fact that it rolled all aspects of design, construction and operations into one role and it worked with all team members to accomplish a mission. I came to work in health care in 1993 as a result of a business associate’s recommending me to a hospital facility director who was looking for a new team member. I didn’t really understand health care engineering at the time and had no idea what I was getting myself into! The move to health care engineering and facility management has been extremely rewarding and was my best career move.
How did your background help you to look at hospital power usage?
I learned early on in my career that there are a number of important aspects to any profession: safety, root-cause analysis, system evaluation and efficiency. These are also especially pertinent in health care. Due to the many pressing issues of any facilities team, there can be a tendency to satisfy complaints through quick actions that may or may not address the root cause. This creates Band-Aids that then can create other issues that may not get the attention of the original complaint and, therefore, may not be corrected. An example is decreasing the discharge air temperature from a large air-handling unit and increasing the airflow from the terminal units providing cooling to a radiology procedure room when a fan coil unit fails. This satisfies the complaint of the room being hot, but it increases energy consumption, not only at the air-handling unit, but also for the entire chilled water system of the campus.
What were some of the initiatives that enabled your organization to win Energy Star Partner of the Year?
It essentially took us six years of progress in energy management to be recognized. This was the third time we applied and we proved three years of continued and consistent energy reduction in our initial 7 million-square-foot portfolio. We also rolled out the energy program to our real estate portfolio, and used more Energy Star-specific programs including obtaining Energy Star certification for one hospital and a number of long-term care and office buildings. In addition, we performed an Energy Treasure Hunt as outlined in an Energy Star tool, and fully participated in the recent American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE)-sponsored energy and water survey and we continue to use Portfolio Manager as our benchmarking tool.
Can you talk about some of the projects that led to your Pineville facility in Charlotte winning the ASHRAE Technology Award for health care in January?
While Energy Star has many no- and low-cost operational tools, ASHRAE is more focused on mechanical designs, and the design professionals share in the award. This recognition was received as a result of an engineered design for airflow setbacks in the operating rooms when unoccupied; retrocommissioning of the building automation system that included rewriting the control sequences of the air-handling and terminal units and recalculating minimum airflows; replacing pneumatic controls with direct digital technology and new energy-efficient control sequences; and optimization of the chilled water system. This project, along with many operational changes initiated by the plant operations director and a corporatewide energy-education program, resulted in a 40 percent energy reduction.
Your facilities also have won several ASHE Energy to Care awards. What does that program provide to your organization that the others might not?
The Energy to Care awards were instrumental in helping our energy team tell the story. They showed our leaders that the capital investment that they approved was worthwhile. Some great things about the Energy to Care awards are that they are based solely on measurable energy performance, are free to members, include a graphical dashboard and are recognized at the ASHE Annual Conference & Technical Exhibition. One of the highlights of receiving Energy to Care awards was being backstage at the conference and waiting to be presented with an award while standing with my senior vice president, who was taking the stage after the award ceremony as part of the conference’s executive leaders forum. Before he went on stage, he said, “Thank you for the work you have done in this. Your receiving this award makes it easier for me to get on stage next.”
How were you able to sell your energy-efficiency initiatives to the C-suite?
The triple bottom line of improving patient and staff safety and comfort, improving community health through a reduced carbon footprint, and a business case in which $1 saved offsets $20 of revenue makes energy reduction desirable.
As with any organization, we have to prioritize where we make investments. So, even though the concept of energy efficiency is desirable, it competes for capital funding in an environment with new medical equipment technology, information technology, infrastructure renewal and overall facility refurbishments. So, obtaining funding for the initial project was not easy.
We worked as a team to put together an overall strategy that included how to prioritize initiatives, executive-level presentations, expectations and measurement, and verification. We looked for projects that were considered to be rapidly deployable, scalable, applicable to most direct patient care sites and had a desirable return on investment.
We then reported the savings monthly and reduced the utilities budget to reflect the savings. Once the initial project proved successful, obtaining funding for subsequent projects has been easier.
What advice would you give to health care organizations just starting out on their energy-efficiency journey?
Be persistent, patient, positive and, most importantly, tell your story. The journey matters to your health care system’s finances, your community’s health and the health of our planet.
There are many great free tools to help jump-start your program. Begin by benchmarking your facilities and setting a goal. Your facility’s employees also probably have a number of things they can suggest, and just need you to champion energy efficiency and ask for their input.
Also get involved in ASHE and your state professional chapter to reach out to peers for ideas. Talk with your utility providers who might have programs to fund energy audits and provide financial incentives. Engage professional consultants and vendors for ideas and programs.
Finally, have an elevator speech ready. Ours is: “We reduced energy enough last year to power three hospitals for free! We essentially took them off the grid!”