At Mich. hospital, summer intern leaves energy efficient legacy

A college intern at Metro Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., instituted a successful sustainability program with a budget of exactly zero dollars. (Photo courtesy of Metro Health)

A college intern at Metro Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., instituted a successful sustainability program with a budget of exactly zero dollars. (Photo courtesy of Metro Health)

By Danielle Lazarus

The word “intern” may bring to mind coffee runs, cubicles, and spreadsheets — but sometimes interns buck the stereotype and substantially impact an organization.

That was the case with John Ebers, a former undergraduate intern who successfully launched Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Metro Health Hospital’s entire sustainability program with a budget of zero dollars.

During his 2004 internship, Ebers was tasked with developing and implementing plans to help the 208-bed hospital become more sustainable. Beginning with a recycling program and then moving on to more complex energy initiatives, Ebers laid the groundwork for the hospital’s present-day waste management and energy-efficient practices.

At the end of his internship, Ebers was offered a job as Metro Health’s sustainable business officer. Soon after, Metro Health became the first hospital in Michigan with LEED-certified facilities.

“[Our sustainability mission] really started with an intern, challenging him to ‘green’ Metro Health but not spend any money,” says Ellen Bristol, the hospital’s director of media relations. “He did a phenomenal job, being personable, getting people involved, and he made things really easy, pointing out successes and that it wasn’t going to cost anything.”

Thanks to its institutional commitment as well as rebates and incentives offered statewide and locally, Metro Health has since developed a comprehensive energy strategy. Recently, the hospital used a grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Sustainability to monitor rainwater and runoff, and state-level rebates have allowed the hospital to replace all parking lot lights with energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, tune up its boiler system annually, and hire independent engineers to analyze the hospital’s energy processes and systems.

Robert Van Rees is Metro Health’s director of facilities. He said energy audits or commissioning more energy efficient processes was expected to cost Metro Health $13,000. But because of rebate programs, the hospital got $12,000 back, he said.

“All I had to do was commit to $5,000 worth of projects that they recommended, which we’ve already fulfilled,” Van Ress said.

Van Rees estimates that Metro Health saved $150,000 over the next year thanks to the engineers’ audits.

Metro Health also participated in the 2015 Michigan Battle of the Buildings competition, which annually recognizes buildings that have reduced their energy consumption the most. After reducing consumption by 2 percent in 2014, Metro Health took first-place in the medical division.

“It was actually pretty difficult, when you look at our hospital being LEED-certified already,” says Van Rees. “So there wasn’t much low-hanging fruit for us.”

Van Rees estimates the energy reductions from the Battle of the Building Competition saved Metro Health upwards of $60,000.

With a foundation laid by a former intern, and under Van Rees’ direction, sustainability and energy efficiency has transformed Metro Health.

“Sustainability is one of those things that started off as, ‘Hey, it could be cool, let’s give a guy an internship,’” said Bristol. But now it’s, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of good business practices here.”

Danielle Lazarus was a Stanback intern at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the summer of 2015. She is currently a senior at Duke University.