Student Powers Up Wright Center’s Energy-saving Efforts

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Rachel Huxhold arrived at The Wright Center for Community Health Wilkes-Barre Practice in early 2024 for a checkup of sorts, but her interest wasn’t in seeing a doctor.

Instead, she wanted to peer into the building’s maintenance closets and closed-door spaces where water heaters, heating/cooling units, and other devices work to keep the clinic functioning and comfortable – and consume energy.

Her aim: Uncover waste and promote conservation.

Huxhold, 30, is a student at the Harvard Extension School, pursuing a master’s degree in sustainability. She chose The Wright Center as the focus of her capstone project, offering to serve for free as a student consultant and develop a sustainability action plan that she intends to give to the nonprofit’s leadership team in April.

The plan, which she describes as “a road map or reference guide,” will recommend energy-saving strategies that can be implemented immediately, Huxhold said. The plan also will identify future opportunities for The Wright Center’s team to consider as it “thinks through how to operate more sustainably” and possibly looks to renewable energy alternatives.

“Energy usage is the main area we’re tackling,” explained Huxhold. “But I’m also looking at waste and water activity, how folks are using the building – really, a myriad of ways to be more environmentally conscious.”

The Wright Center demonstrated its growing commitment to sustainability in early 2023 when it hired Covington Township resident John Slater as its first environmental, social, and governance (ESG) specialist.

“The sustainability plan that Rachel prepares for us will have a tailored set of recommendations,” said Slater, who noted the project’s timing is ideal. Not only is it expected to be completed just as The Wright Center compiles its top ESG priorities (and metrics by which to measure them), but it also is unfolding as the government offers incentives to nonprofits through the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation to make the transition to clean energy.

“The plan will be actionable for us because there are so many energy-conserving things out there to do,” Slater said.

The Wright Center’s leaders will be able to review the report’s suggestions this spring, then potentially make changes and start saving money that can be reinvested in patient care and services. But beyond lowering utility bills, there are likely to be other benefits. Chief among them is the ability of the health center to withstand severe weather events so that it can fulfill its role as an essential community provider and serve low-income patients of all ages even in challenging circumstances.

“It’s about resiliency,” said Huxhold. “As climate change progresses and we have stronger heat waves, more severe storms, things like that, there are definitely benefits to making sure the facilities are able to perform the functions that they need to in all kinds of more extreme conditions.”

For The Wright Center, there also can be a reputational benefit to being a sustainability leader among community health centers. As word spreads, its emphasis on conservation and climate awareness could serve as a drawing card for job seekers who prefer “green” organizations over those that seemingly remain ambivalent about the planet’s problems.

‘The perfect marriage’

To perform an energy audit of The Wright Center’s facilities, Huxhold first looked at the paper records, including utility bills and written descriptions of its building management systems. Then, she followed up with fieldwork.

Huxhold, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, visited Northeast Pennsylvania in mid-January, touring the Mid Valley Practice in Jermyn and the Wilkes-Barre Practice. The two buildings are owned, not leased, by the organization, potentially allowing for recommended energy-conserving steps to be followed more easily and quickly.

Dennis Hand, director of facilities management, Michael Sobolewski, maintenance worker, and Slater accompanied the student consultant as she eyeballed the buildings’ heating/cooling systems, water heaters, and other equipment.

She peered over IT gadgets and looked at light fixtures. She checked for drafty doors and windows. She noted facility conditions (later commending The Wright Center for its upkeep) and asked plenty of questions of employees who use the buildings.

“We got a lot of positive feedback just walking around and telling folks what we were looking for,” said Huxhold, who is credentialed as a certified energy manager and a LEED green associate. “It felt as if everyone really saw the value and was excited about this type of work.”

At the outset of her capstone project, Huxhold had contacted the National Association of Community Health Centers in Bethesda, Maryland, asking for its guidance on narrowing the choices of potential project partners.

“The Wright Center was the first group they mentioned,” she said. “They explained that ESG work was an emergent priority for The Wright Center, and it wants to be a leader in the health care space for climate action. It seemed like the perfect marriage.”

Feeling the heat

Federal officials urge health care organizations to connect the dots between the environment and health. In 2021, the Biden administration established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to examine how the environment impacts Americans’ health and to ramp up protection for people, “especially those experiencing a higher share of exposures and impacts,” according to the newly established office.

As part of the initiative, health centers, hospitals, and related groups nationwide are signing on to the Health Sector Climate Pledge, a voluntary commitment to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The Wright Center will likely have a major opportunity to weave energy efficiency into its operations as it works to complete Phase III of the repurposing of its Wilkes-Barre site. Slater believes the health center will increasingly be able to highlight its actions, serving as an example and sharing lessons with patients and the broader community about conservation and the connection between climate and public health.

“A lot of people don’t think Pennsylvania is being impacted because they’re not seeing the large-scale weather disasters locally, all the damage,” Slater said.

But he frequently reminds people to think about the state’s recent string of relatively mild winters, last year’s wildfire-induced smoky air, and an increasing number of high heat index days (above 90 degrees) each summer. “Even though we’re not in an area that is feeling the impact excessively, like a New Orleans or a Miami,” said Slater, “it’s still something that is slowly showing its stripes.”