How We Did It: Reducing our carbon footprint through retrofit and local energy

We are feeling the impact of the climate crisis closer to home. 2023 was the UK’s second hottest year on record, and severe flash flooding damaged homes and infrastructure across the country. In parallel, rising energy costs are hitting councils hard, putting services and facilities at risk.

But some public services are beginning to change the way they create and consume energy – with benefits for the climate and the public purse.

We put Des Keighan in our ‘How We Did It’ hot seat to hear how Swansea Bay University Health Board has become low carbon by retrofitting buildings and turning unused land into a solar farm which powers the local hospital.

Interview highlights

Can you give us an overview of the work you’ve been doing at Swansea Bay University Hospital to reduce carbon emissions through retrofitting and solar farms?

Unlike in England where health boards cover acute, tertiary, mental health, in Wales we cover all. So, we have an estate of around 250,000 square meters, over about 70 buildings. We have two major acute hospitals and eight or nine other hospitals which cover from Swansea to parts of Cardiff.

In 2016 the Welsh Government announced that we could access something called Salix funding which is basically grants for energy schemes. Within the health service, if I want to bid for engineering projects, I have to bid against clinical projects. We don’t have siloed budgets for capital. So, this was the first opportunity we had to access money specifically for decarbonising and improving energy efficiency.

As most people with an engineering energy background will know there are a lot of simple things you can do, from campaigns to good housekeeping. But part of the problem in the NHS is that if a surgeon says they want 27 degrees, they’re going to have 27 degrees if there’s a clinical need.

So, we identified a number of potential schemes, from simply improving the building management systems to insulating of all our pipe work. We changed nearly 17,000 light fittings from traditional to LED in operational space.

We’ve generated just shy of 10 million kilowatts of savings between all the different schemes that we’ve implemented, with savings of around £1.7 million a year.

But at the same time, we were in discussions with Good Energy about a solar farm that fell through when the Welsh Government withdrew funding. We stepped in with the landlord to take on the planning permission for the development of the solar farm. We built a solar farm 3.2 kilometres from our main acute hospital, Morriston, which provides regional burns, pathology and renal services. And we now provide all of the energy for that site during the day in the summer.

We’ve generated just shy of 10 million kilowatts of savings between all the different schemes that we’ve implemented, with savings of around £1.7 million a year.

How was the project funded?

Under the refit framework, you get a partner. We partnered with Vital Energi and they carried out what’s called a high level assessment. They looked at all of our ideas and then they came back with guaranteed savings from the scheme. If they don’t deliver the savings, they write us a cheque to the value of the unachieved savings. We then pay that grant back over an 8-10 year period.

In terms of the process, we applied for the grant which was approved by the Welsh Government. And then the funding was issued to the health board via the normal capital routes that are applicable in the NHS.

Each health board has what’s called discretionary capital and if there are specific projects, we get additional funding from the Welsh Government. And then each year we have to pay back the loan that we’ve taken.

How did you gain buy-in from leadership and the board? Was that an easy process or were there challenges?

At the time our chairman was the former energy minister for Wales. Because the chair was keen, that made the chief exec keen, which made my boss keen, and that made a massive difference. I think if you take the chair away, the big seed change has come from the savings from the solar farm.

The solar farm was meant to save us around £488,000 a year. It saves us nearly £1.6m now, because of the price increase between when we started the scheme, from 15p per kilowatt up to 27-28p now. It’s provided a real incentive to the health board; once the executives saw the scale of the savings we made, that changed things.

Beyond the impressive cost savings, could you talk us through some of the other impacts that those changes have made and how you communicated that both to staff and external partners?

Whilst we’ve demonstrated the savings we’ve made, all the savings have been snaffled and disappeared because the health board has been expanding its services because of the pandemic. But it’s really helped having the discussion with the director of finance, saying, look, we provided these savings, and we’ve decided to open these two new wards. And we’ve extended services, so it’s helped us get additional revenue.

We were the first health board in the UK to have a direct wired solar farm. Because of that, we’ve had some positive coverage from the press, and that’s made staff aware. This project was delivered during the pandemic, and at first there was a lot of negativity because staff questioned why we were spending money on a solar farm when we didn’t have enough doctors and nurses. But we were able to explain that this was separate funding specifically for energy, rather than NHS funding.

And I’ve recently started work with master’s students at Swansea University to do an awareness campaign around why me? And what difference can I make? We’re tapping into their resource of media and business management analytics to help the health board see the benefits. This includes all the savings that we’ve made over and above repaying the loan which have gone back into the health board coffers.

It’s tricky to do retrofit when you’ve got buildings that are being used all the time, whether in a clinical environment, or council buildings being used every day by staff and the public. How did you get around this and get staff on board?

Often the prospect of the unknown is worse than what is actually happening. So we joined the daily bed management meetings and the matrons meeting, we took a big tub of chocolates and we showed a video of what would happen when we changed the light fittings. It was about 15 minutes, but it saved us so much hassle and time because they could see the video and go, Oh, you did that in a live ward? It really helped people see the scale of the work that was required.

Often the prospect of the unknown is worse than what is actually happening.

Once we’d completed certain areas, the lighting made the place look much better. We brought staff from the other areas to show them what they would get, and people were saying, Come and do our ward next. And that won over hearts and minds.

A lot of our services are 24/7, and we had to do a lot of the EC fans outside of normal hours. And that involved working with our theatre colleagues and clinical staff to isolate specific areas. And because we had such a big project to do, we flexed with them on a daily basis. I appreciate that’s not possible with every building, but because we had so many areas to do, if they said we’ve got a room free in intensive care, we dropped everything and went and did it.

What advice would you give to somebody who is thinking about doing something similar in their council?

Often we get asked to do things like this on top of our day job. But I’d say it’s key to get a team together, even if it’s a small one; understand your own organisation’s processes; and understand you approval processes as well.

And having somebody that’s focused purely on the project is really important. We had a technical project manager and a project manager representing the health board who ran interference with the clinical staff.

We had a partnership with Vital Energi and from day one, we tried to be open and up front on both sides. It worked really well and we did work in partnership. I know we often say those words, and it means different things to different people. Companies are there to make a profit, but if you accept that you work together to get something that’s really worthwhile.

How We Did It’ sessions are exclusive to members of New Local’s network.

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