Lancaster General Hospital is buying a lot less electricity these days, thanks to its new power plant that runs on natural gas.

The $28 million facility that LGH calls an “Energy Center of the Future” started running earlier this year and now provides the bulk of the hospital’s power, with the rest still coming from PPL Electric Utilities.

Hospital executives say the 6.6 megawatt power plant will save about $2 million a year while producing only about half of the emissions that stemmed from making PPL’s power.

And those aren’t the only advantages.

“We’re self-sustaining now in case we lose electric,” said John Hartman, senior director of facilities management.

The main turbine can continue running and powering the hospital indefinitely as long as the natural gas line supplying it is functioning, officials said.

And if the gas line goes down, they said, four backup generators — twice as many as the hospital used to have — can run for 96 hours on the hospital’s 50,000-gallon ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel tank, making sure essential systems and equipment keep working.

“These will start up within seconds,” said Ed Kappenstein, the hospital’s central utility plant supervisor.

The kind of system LGH installed is known as a “combined heat and power” system, or CHP. Several other hospitals in the region have built or are building them.

The savings come largely from the efficiency of combining functions, using the heat created by making electricity to produce steam used for heating and sterilization.

Additionally, LGH added a chiller that runs on the steam and is used to cool the hospital and control its humidity.

Hospital leaders say they first discussed the project about a decade ago, and that it made sense to do it in conjunction with the nearby ongoing Frederick Building expansion that’s taking part of the hospital from three stories to eight.

The CHP part of the project cost about $8 million, hospital leaders say. A $1.3 million grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development cut the size of the hospital’s investment.

How it works

The energy center is part of the hospital campus in Lancaster, bordering the 100 block of East Frederick Street.

It was built on top of the old boiler house, which required using 15 structural steel beams to create a new foundation around the existing facility.

Officials say that was, in part, because having power equipment above ground level is a good idea in case of natural disasters, especially watery ones like hurricanes.

The turbine, they say, is essentially a jet engine, which is why there’s a big container of earplugs in the expansive third-story space holding it.

That area is noisy enough that people have to speak loudly and listen carefully to communicate, but not overwhelming.

The interconnected system has the electricity-producing turbine at one end, followed by the boiler and, at the other end, the chiller. The backup generators are in the next room.

The others

A state database shows that about a dozen hospitals across Pennsylvania have CHP systems.

Among them is Reading Hospital in Berks County, which has had its since 2011.

David Major, Reading’s director of construction and facilities management, said the system paid for itself in just over three years, and he would “absolutely” do it again.

However, he said, it’s not the right solution in every situation, as the supporting infrastructure and public utilities played a big role in making the CHP an economically sound decision.

Asked what the project’s cost was, spokeswoman Jessica Bezler said in an email the hospital is “not able to provide financial information for this project.”

However, in 2010, as the project was under construction, the hospital told the Reading Eagle newspaper that the cost would be $10 million.

Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is building a CHP plant.

Kevin Kanoff, a campus energy engineer, said it’s expected to cost about $19 million and be finished by October 2018, and will not include a chiller.

Conservative estimates put savings at $2.5 million a year, he said, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions at about 44,000 tons per year — which is equivalent to removing about 7,200 cars from the road.

“We are doing it for economic reasons,” he said, noting that the environmental benefits and added capability in case of disaster also factored in the decision.

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