Paving the Budgetary Roadmap to Full Decarbonization

For large-campus facilities, developing decarbonization goals is the easy part. The hard part begins when it comes time to formulate a roadmap that provides much-needed clarity on how to reach those goals.

More than 50% of major higher education institutions have publicly committed to carbon neutrality, but many haven’t yet identified how this goal will be reached or how the work will be funded. Most institutions and universities are struggling to overcome an overwhelming backlog of deferred maintenance while ensuring they can deliver a world-class educational experience. Sustainability goals are competing for the same time and resources.

Identifying a straightforward and cost-effective path to reach this environmental goal is the first barrier. Not only does this require input from a diverse team of engineers, contractors, and operations and maintenance staff, but it also must tell a story that enables leadership and financers to start putting these plans into action.

Assuming a goal has already been set and the institution’s environmental footprint and operational costs have already been benchmarked, a simple top-down budgetary carbon roadmap will help leaders understand what these sustainability commitments require and their best course of action.

It’s best to break down carbon neutrality into a few major categories: efficiency, technology, source, and offsets. Operational efficiency can swing widely, usually allowing for significant improvement in performance with the infrastructure already in place. Investment in better technologies is often needed to bring the level of efficiency into the highest range and, in some cases, shift the source of energy to something more strategic. After efficiency and technology upgrades have been taken as far as possible, any remaining energy must come from a clean and renewable source. Any remaining emissions that are outside of an owner’s control or are entirely cost-prohibitive to directly address must be offset.

Budgeting for efficiency and technology through energy benchmarks

Energy benchmarking has to take into account building function and location in order to understand whether measured performance is actually good or bad. ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager provides an ENERGY STAR score from 0-100, with 100 representing the best possible performance. A building can become ENERGY STAR certified if the building is measured above an ENERGY STAR score of 75 (performing within the top quartile of peers). Whether identified by ENERGY STAR or another benchmarking method, a clear target must be established to both ensure the institution is proving responsibility with a defendable level of high performance and to inform the budgetary investments in technology and efficiency that it will require to get there.

Over decades, Bernhard has built a library of historical benchmarks, project costs, and proven results that can inform the kind of up-front costs that will be required to move the needle. Some good rules of thumb for budgeting from benchmarks would include the following:

  • A very poor performer could pull out of the bottom quartile with simple, low-cost upgrades. These typically generate a significant return on investment with a short payback. For most institutions, most of this work has already been done.
  • Exceeding average performance can typically be achieved with a modest budget toward targeted upgrades and systematic changes to operational efficiency. Although it takes some capital to get there, many of these can still generate returns that far-exceed investment.
  • Moving from average to the top quartile requires a significant, but still-justifiable level of capital to overhaul key infrastructure. Although they can generate savings, these investments require a big commitment without a strong financial driver.
  • To breach the top quartile, sites may require a major overhaul of infrastructure and the capital requirements get especially steep. This investment is particularly challenging to justify if the same environmental outcomes could be achieved in different ways. Remaining funding may be better applied elsewhere, like the last, and always necessary, stage of renewable energy and offsets.

We recommend an owner targets efficiency at or above the fourth quartile (an ENERGY STAR score of 75 or greater). Based on the distance from the existing measured benchmark to this target and historical costs in each range, an institution can establish a reasonable budget for efficiency and technology.

Budgeting for source/offsets

Once an efficiency target and budget have been set, an institution can then project how much energy will be required after improvements have been completed.

Some source contract changes can actually generate cost savings. Energy Cost Intensity (ECI) can be used in a similar way to identify non-consumption savings potential. In this case, an institution should at least strive to be able to purchase utilities at or below an average rate. When treated as a package, value-generating source contract changes can support the costs of other necessary investments, like high-capital infrastructure changes that need to be addressed. When it comes to up-front costs for source contract changes, these are typically comprised of consulting hours and relatively small changes to infrastructure (E.g. meters and transformers).

Renewable energy does not necessarily need to be the last step, but it is important to right-size needs by projecting future needs after improvements have been completed. In today’s market, renewable electricity comes at an incremental cost of around $1.5/MWh per year. Renewable natural gas attributes currently cost around $17/Dth. Ideally, this scope would be addressed through on-site installations or off-site power purchase agreements for new resources that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

In some regions, renewable energy may not actually be within an institution’s control. Some regulated markets do not provide options about what type of energy is produced and purchased. Where this is true, an institution must depend on Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) or another type of offset.

There are also some types of GHG emissions (E.g. directly-emitted refrigerants and anesthetic gases) that don’t have renewable energy sources. Although steps can be taken to select better options, some emissions may be inescapable. Similarly, some infrastructure systems (E.g. staff vehicles) are not within an institution’s boundary of control, but may still be considered toward their carbon footprint. For all of these things, high-quality offsets are essential to fully offset an environmental footprint. Today, a good rule of thumb for carbon offsets is about $8/metric ton CO2e and prices are expected to escalate quickly over the coming years.

By projecting future energy needs and market rates, and identifying barriers with control, a budget for renewable energy and offsets can be created.

Navigating your roadmap

The top town budgetary process should provide clarity about full financing requirements. This is the perfect time for an institution to reaffirm the sustainability goal and explore potential funding mechanisms. If the costs cannot be supported, it may be a good time to reconsider the goals or to explore alternative sources of financing to support the work.

Treating the full roadmap as a package is a great way to ensure the potential savings can become a source of revenue to fund required investments that cannot be financially justified. Two amazing tools to structure this are 1) a Public-Private Partnership (P3) where a third-party brings forward capital and repays investments from future savings, or 2) a Revolving Sustainability Fund that continually reinvests accrued savings into future projects. One of the nice reasons to consider P3s is that once the up-front investment has been made, those future savings are already committed and are not at risk of being diverted to other budgets in the future.

Once there is organizational alignment and a financing plan has been put in place, we can move to the next step of the decarbonization process – the bottom-up due diligence to build a detailed scoping plan. This is a big commitment of time and resources, so completing the top-down roadmap ahead of time will ensure the more-detailed work is focused, well-justified, and backed with an informed budget.

As you work toward developing your roadmap, don’t let unknowns paralyze your progress. Things will change. Certain factors are simply unknowable to a degree of certainty, but most of this work is low-risk and there will be plenty of opportunities to refine the plan as you go. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. We have to make the best decisions that we can based on what we know today, and technologies and competing options should only improve over time. Bernhard recommends organizations revise and update their roadmap at least every 5 years, to incorporate revisions for the best-available technologies and procedures.

Any plan can be improved. But if you never begin the process, you have nothing to work with. Don’t know where to start? Bernhard knows decarbonization, and we’ve got the tools, talent and decades-long experience to put your large-campus facility’s decarbonization journey in the fast lane. Contact our team of experts today.

About the Author:

With a unique blend of experience in business and engineering, Christopher Benson has been able to substantially reduce emissions, water consumption, and operational costs across a massive portfolio. He has proven that ambitious sustainability goals are not only achievable, but with the right leadership, the efforts can also make great business sense. Chris leads the development of Energy-as-a-Service projects using public-private partnerships and efficiency to finance major infrastructure projects in higher education. Just prior to Bernhard, Chris managed the University of Utah Facilities Sustainability and Energy division, where his team led carbon neutrality initiatives, benchmarking performance, and utility procurement. 

The Hidden Environmental Impact of Anesthetic Gases: A Call to Action

By: Diana Husmann, David Lamberson, Cami Lambert 

In the ongoing global dialogue about climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it’s easy to miss certain unexpected but significant contributors to the issue. One area that’s often overlooked is the use of Inhaled Anesthetic Agents (IAA) like sevoflurane, isoflurane, nitrous oxide, and desflurane by the healthcare sector.

Used for decades to reduce anxiety and safely induce a painless unconsciousness during surgical procedures, there’s growing recognition that IAAs are powerful greenhouse gasses, with hundreds or even thousands of times more heat-trapping potential than well-known global warming contributors like carbon dioxide. Exhaled by patients as waste gas and routinely vented directly to outside air during procedures, some of these IAAs can linger in the atmosphere for well over a century.

Climate change and global warming are a growing threat to the planet and human survival, so many hospital campuses in the United States are taking a new look at anesthetic gasses and their use, including choosing those with the least environmental impact. With partners like Bernhard specializing in greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon footprint reduction, healthcare systems across the U.S. are also developing strategies for tracking IAA leakage while re-examining their policies on venting and reclaiming waste IAAs before they can reach the environment.

Through commonsense efforts to limit the use and venting of certain particularly damaging IAAs, hospitals can not only help save the environment through more mindful stewardship, but they can also potentially save themselves quite a bit of money in overall maintenance and IAA usage as well.


While essential for patient comfort and safety during surgical procedures, many IAAs have a potent impact on our environment.

These IAAs contribute to a hazy blanket of gas in the atmosphere, holding more heat from the sun close to the Earth rather than allowing it to radiate back out into space.

To make matters worse, many hospitals in the U.S. do little to capture or reduce the environmental impact of IAAs released during procedures. During surgery, only a small fraction of anesthetic gas is actually metabolized by the patient to maintain unconsciousness. The rest, approximately 95%, is exhaled as what’s called waste anesthetic gas (WAG).

To prevent these exhaled waste gases from impairing those working in the operating room, they’re usually pulled into the ventilation system by exhaust fans before being directed through ductwork to the roof, where they are vented to the air. Because these gases are directly vented from the hospital, they are considered Scope 1 GHG emissions.

While quickly venting waste gas protects hospital staff, the impact on the environment can be significant. One researcher found that using desflurane during a single surgery produced roughly the same global warming impact as driving 12 diesel-powered Humvee SUVs during the entire procedure. Put another way: 8 hours of anesthesia using desflurane during surgery is the environmental equivalent of 116 days of driving in the average passenger car.

Multiply that by the yearly caseload of more than 42,000 anesthesiologists currently working in the U.S., and you begin to see the staggering scope of the problem, and why it should not be allowed to continue unchecked.


While new technologies for capturing or destroying more waste IAAs are being explored, hospital campuses can take plenty of steps to reduce the number of anesthesia gases released into the atmosphere.

  • MAKE TECHNOLOGY YOUR ALLY: The range of technology designed to help organizations reduce greenhouse gas emissions is growing every day, and that includes reducing the harm anesthesia gas does to the environment. For example, many medical gas scavenging systems are designed to run constantly, even when a patient isn’t in the room receiving anesthesia. Consider medical gas vacuum valves to help reduce this drain on energy resources. If the pressure switch isn’t activated, these valves attach to the anesthesia machine, turning off the vacuum scavenging function. In one notable example of how this technology can help, the Cleveland Clinic installed more than 120 medical gas vacuum valves at its main campus and saved more than $110,000 in energy costs, and reduced maintenance while increasing the lifespan of the equipment.
  • CONSIDER REPLACING OLDER ANESTHESIA MACHINES WITH MORE EFFICIENT MODELS: Many older designs for anesthesia machines didn’t consider the impact of IAAs on the environment. These days, with more hospitals looking to reduce their carbon footprint, many modern machines have features like automatic flow-rate alerts and advanced carbon dioxide absorbers that help anesthesiologists maintain lower gas flow rates during procedures without compromising patient comfort or safety. Using less gas means less waste gas being vented into the atmosphere, and the results can be dramatic. For example, between 2014-2017, Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center purchased 37 new anesthesia machines with features designed to allow for lower flow rates and reduce IAA waste. During the three-year program, these machines reduced nitrous oxide use at the hospital by 45.5 percent, while reducing spending on anesthetic gases overall by more than 27 percent.
  • DECOMMISSION LEAK-PRONE CENTRALIZED NITROUS OXIDE DISTRIBUTION IN FAVOR OF PORTABLE CANISTERS: Nitrous oxide is particularly detrimental to the environment because it has an exceptionally long atmospheric lifetime. Nitrous Oxide can be lost before use in central piping systems because of leaks found in supply tanks, manifolds, zone valves, pipelines & joints, pressure gauges, wall outlets, and anesthesia machines. The amount of nitrous oxide supplied to the system should be compared to the amount delivered to the patient. In addition, hospitals can significantly reduce their emissions footprint by delivering nitrous oxide in portable canisters. For example, a Northwest-based medical center recently found that switching from centralized delivery systems to portable nitrous cylinders reduced emissions from 594 mtCO2e/year to 5.6 mtCO2e/year.
  • EDUCATE ANESTHESIOLOGISTS ON THE IMPACT OF IAAs, AND ENCOURAGE THEM TO REDUCE OR ELIMINATE THEIR USE OF THE MOST HARMFUL GASSES: All of the most important anesthesia gasses in use today contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, but some IAAs — particularly nitrous oxide and desflurane — are much more harmful to the environment than others. Due to that potential harm, recent guidance from the Association of Anesthetists calls for anesthetists to avoid desflurane and nitrous oxide if possible. One potential benefit of going green is desflurane is much more expensive than sevoflurane, potentially helping large hospitals save hundreds of thousands per year while helping the environment.
  • SEEK A TRUSTED AND KNOWLEDGEABLE PARTNER: Tracking down IAA leaks, installing monitoring technology, phasing out or updating antiquated distribution infrastructure, air quality monitoring, installing anesthetic gas sequestration systems, evaluating new technologies and more is all part of the puzzle of reducing the environmental impact of anesthesia gas. Get any of it wrong, and you might wind up worse off than when you started. With that in mind, you’ll likely need to find a trusted mechanical and technology provider with specialized experience in anesthetic gas distribution, advanced monitoring and troubleshooting complex systems. That’s a path to getting real, measurable results while not letting the budget spiral out of control.


With more than 120 years of experience working with hospitals and over two decades in carbon reduction, monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx), and greenhouse gas mitigation, Bernhard is ready to be the trusted partner hospitals need to reduce their dependence on the most environmentally harmful anesthesia gasses, fix leaky systems and find true, lasting IAA reduction. Nobody knows the energy and environmental challenges faced by large campus hospitals better than Bernhard, and with a growing portfolio of clients who we’ve helped reduce anesthesia gas use, waste and expenditures, we’re rapidly becoming the most trusted name in the still relatively new field of IAA mitigation. Bernhard knows IAA, and we’ve got the tools, team and advanced technology you need to get your anesthesia-related emissions under control while potentially saving tens of thousands annually on wasted anesthetic gas. Is your campus ready to be part of the solution of one of the biggest greenhouse gas contributors in healthcare today? Contact our team today.

Commercial Building Decarbonization and Why It Matters

With America feeling the impact of climate change through extreme weather events like prolonged droughts and catastrophic hurricanes, finding ways to reduce the number of greenhouse gasses (GHG) released into the atmosphere every year is increasingly top-of-mind for businesses, government leaders, and the public.

One area where the United States has a lot of room to improve emissions is through the energy and efficiency of commercial buildings. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, commercial buildings are responsible for 826 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year, which accounts for 16 percent of U.S. emissions overall.

What exactly is decarbonization?

Decarbonization is the process of reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Although carbon is not the only greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, it is the most significant. Whether referred to as ‘net zero’, ‘full decarbonization’, or ‘carbon neutrality’, related environmental goals measure all significant GHG emissions and convert them to an equivalent ton of carbon for simple benchmarking and tracking.

Reductions can be achieved through several different methods, including implementing “smart building” technologies that allow energy use to be carefully monitored and regulated, maximizing energy efficiency during the construction of new buildings, retrofits that increase the overall efficiency of existing systems, or producing energy from sustainable sources like geothermal, wind and solar. To fully decarbonize, efficiency, technology changes, renewable energy, and offsets are all required.

Why is decarbonization important?

Not only is climate change an environmental issue, but it has also been recognized as the most significant danger to human life from the effects of more frequent and more severe natural disasters. The impacts of climate change are inequitable, and most likely to impact poor and disadvantaged communities.

Decarbonization-related environmental goals are incredibly important, but they do not define why healthcare systems, higher education institutions, and other organizations exist in the first place. What is the point of a school if there are not sufficient light and comfortable conditions for students and teachers to effectively educate and conduct research? State-funded institutions must remain good stewards of taxpayer money or they will unfairly burden the community.

Healthcare spaces, which are built to protect and enhance the quality of life, ironically use more energy per square foot and produce more emissions than any other category of commercial building in the United States. It’s more than double the national average for commercial buildings. Many types of educational facilities are also significantly higher energy users than average.

Owners are faced with so many choices about how to procure supplies, what types of technologies to use, and how to operate what they have. Serving a core mission can be accomplished in a number of ways, but successful decarbonization allows an organization to do this while minimizing operational waste and proving environmental responsibility.

The problem of wasted energy

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least 30 percent of the energy used by commercial buildings in the United States is wasted. Campuses can include dozens of large buildings, built to radically different efficiency standards that were in place for several decades. When the buildings rely on outdated control systems and aging infrastructure, the resulting performance is usually well below peak efficiency. As a result of these wasteful effects, many campuses face unnecessarily high energy expenditures every year and are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy costs.

For large commercial campuses, with millions of square feet of buildings, the cost and environmental savings to be gained through efforts like retro-commissioning, waste heat recovery, and infrastructure improvements can be substantial. Saving energy has the win-win impact of both reducing annual spending and minimizing environmental impacts.

How is decarbonization done?

For a large owner, decarbonization requires changes to how infrastructure is operated, what technologies are used, where energy is sourced from, and offsets for emissions that can’t be controlled or avoided.

The transition to true ‘carbon neutrality’ is a long and complicated effort, requiring significant time, talent, and capital to make it a reality. This process will be most cost-effective and most successful at avoiding common pitfalls by splitting the process into the following steps:

      • Clarify the goal.
      • Baseline and benchmark performance
      • Establish top-down ‘budgetary’ needs.
      • Identify specific opportunities that can be prioritized.
      • Roadmap the most cost-effective path to the end goal
      • Procure/finance and implement changes.
      • Monitor, maintain, and expand results.

The value adds of decarbonization and building improvements

Most of the headlines around decarbonization efforts are rightly focused on mitigating the effects of climate change that threaten our shared environmental future. Even beyond those factors, there are many additional benefits of commercial building decarbonization and the resulting infrastructure improvements.

Another area where commercial building improvements can have a sizable impact is indoor air quality. This can be particularly important for universities and hospitals, especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Building decarbonization often involves taking a close look at HVAC systems, replacing, repairing, or recalibrating the various components so they work together better than originally designed. In addition to boosting overall energy efficiency, this process often improves both ventilation capacity and air filtration. The result is heating, cooling, and air-handling systems that are better able to reduce dust, mold, allergens and other contaminants, with a corresponding improvement in overall air quality.

Improvements with decarbonization also have the potential to make infrastructure much more resilient against factors that can threaten mission-critical services. For example, Bernhard recently completed a multi-year energy project at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). A major component of the project was the completion of a $50 million power plant that can supply the entire electrical needs of the campus on demand if primary power is lost.

In addition to improved energy stability, the result is better energy security for UAMS, allowing the campus to ride out any future electrical interruptions without impacting care. At a time when everything from more powerful storms to a troubling rise of domestic terror attacks on electrical substations threatens the stability of the power grid in the U.S., that’s increasingly important.

Ready to see what decarbonization can do for your environmental footprint, annual energy spend, and resilience? Bernhard knows decarbonization and has been leading the industry for years. We can show you the way to a brighter, more efficient future for your large-campus facility. Learn how to take the first step by contacting us today.

About the Author:

With a unique blend of experience in business and engineering, Christopher Benson has been able to substantially reduce emissions, water consumption, and operational costs across a massive portfolio. He has proven that ambitious sustainability goals are not only achievable, but with the right leadership, the efforts can also make great business sense. Chris leads the development of Energy-as-a-Service projects using public-private partnerships and efficiency to finance major infrastructure projects in higher education. Just prior to Bernhard, Chris managed the University of Utah Facilities Sustainability and Energy division, where his team led carbon neutrality initiatives, benchmarking performance, and utility procurement.