Cheese Lights the Whey: Biogas from Dairy Farm, Brewery and Landfill Turns Wisconsin Hospital into Renewables Powerhouse

May 18, 2012

The Crave Brothers dairy farm in Waterloo, Wisconsin, makes tubs of celebrated mascarpone cheese. Across the state, City Brewery in La Crosse brews millions of cases of winning ales and lagers. But Wisconsin’s Gundersen Lutheran Hospital gets excited about the stuff that doesn’t pass the smell test.

Gundersen takes biogas produced from cheese whey and brewing waste, as well as landfill methane, and turns it into megawatts of electricity in GE’s Jenbacher engines. The pioneering hospital has been investing in renewable electricity and conservation and has set a goal to become 100 percent energy independent by 2014.

This helps the environment - the landfill and the brewery used to flare off the gas - and it’s also good for business. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates American hospitals spend $5 billion, or at least 15 percent of their profits, on energy costs. Hospital pavilions are also more than 2.5 times more energy and CO2 intensive than office buildings. “Our goal is to show that we can be environmentally sound and improve our finances at the same time,” Jeff Thompson, Gundersen’s CEO told Fast Company recently.

The hospital’s Jenbachers, which are part of GE’s ecomagination portfolio, started generating renewable power and heat at the dairy farm and the brewery in 2009. Last week, Gundersen’s 350,000 square-foot clinic in Onalaska became possibly the nation’s first energy-independent medical campus. The clinic gets all the power it needs from yet another Jenbacher burning methane produced by the La Crosse County landfill. For GE, the Onalaska story gets even better. The landfill Jenbacher powers two GE digital mammography screening units that the clinic installed last year.

Electricity from biogas and wind now covers about 30 percent of Gundersen’s total power demand. The La Crosse landfill project alone will produce more than $7 million in revenue over the next decade, the hospital estimates. Those are real savings which Gundersen can pass to patients. “The landfill requires initial investment, but in six-and-a-haIf years it will be completely paid for, and we’ll have several hundred thousand dollars less each year in energy costs,” CEO Thompson told Fast Company. “If the cost of energy skyrockets, it won’t hurt our patients and our community.”

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Pretty on the Inside: Intermediate flanch from GE’s Jenbacher engine. There are over 1,300 GE Jenbacher gas engines running on biogas installed around the world. They generate more than 6.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

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imageDrill, Baby, Drill: GE machinist is using a high-precision CNC drilling machine to manufacture a crankshaft for the Jenbacher engine.