Friendly Society Private Hospital
From humble bush hospital to solar-powered world-class facility
Bundaberg’s Friendly Society Private Hospital goes solar to curb massive electricity price hikes and save millions of dollars
The Friendly Society Private Hospital is located in the west of Bundaberg, Queensland. The hospital has been operating for about 70 years now, having spun off from a Friendly Society founded in 1897. It is unique in today’s healthcare delivery environment, as it is run as a not-for-profit organisation. The betterment of the community is at the forefront of its operation, and all profits are reinjected into the operations of the hospital rather than distributed to any third parties. The hospital has a long and rich history, expanding from a medical institute and private nursing hospital in the 1920’s to a small bush hospital operated in a large Queenslander house in the 1940’s. Major additions and alterations followed in the 1960’s, then a number of large investments into modernisations and extensions over the next 50 years shaped the Friendly Societies Private Hospital into the excellent facility that it is today.
Friendly Societies have been around for several hundred years, providing essential social services to help and shield each other from misfortune, stemming from times before insurance schemes and the welfare state. Also known as mutual or benevolent societies, a number of these organisations are still around today, serving communities by providing social or cooperative financial services like insurance, pensions, savings and credit associations.
The Friendlies hospital is the first hospital in the Bundaberg and Wide Bay Region to achieve accreditation under the International Standards Organisation accreditation program (ISO 9001:2008), as well as the National Standards, an international benchmark that extends beyond local healthcare expectations. These are achievements underpinned by the facility’s amazing performance and the reviews of thousands of happy patients.
The Friendlies Hospital was staring down the barrel of increases of over 30% to its $80,000 per month power bill – effectively increasing the yearly power bill by almost $300,000. Wholesale electricity costs in Australia have soared by over 50% over the last couple of years, and the price increases are slowly getting passed on to the large electricity market customers. Especially in regional areas where there is less market competition and higher network costs, electricity costs at the scale of The Friendlies Hospital are fast becoming unsustainable.
When GEM Energy was brought in to assess their situation and investigate the prospect of adding a solar energy solution, we found that the hospital was in dire need of an energy efficiency upgrade. It was fitted with inefficient fluorescent and halogen lighting throughout and was using no less than twelve instantaneous gas hot water storage tanks – which were contributing to a large chunk of their energy bill woes.
Like many other businesses and organisations in this situation and particularly in the case of a internationally recognised private hospital, compromising on the quality of care at the hospital in order to balance the books was simply not an option. The Friendlies also did not want to raise their fees, so they had to find an alternative solution.
In early 2017, the looming electricity price increases prompted action and GEM Energy was commissioned to install solar energy and energy efficiency solutions.
545 kW of solar PV was installed, utilising the vast amounts of space available on the rooves of the Friendly Society complex. Concurrently, our in-house commercial LED lighting designer did a full LED lighting upgrade, while we also worked closely together with SolarArk to install five new commercial solar water heater systems across the hospital’s roof.
The system was specially designed to immediately use close to 100% of all energy produced, as opposed to sending energy back to the grid for a credit. Hospitals are great candidates for using solar energy in this way as they operate twenty four hours of the day, seven days a week – meaning there is always energy demand to be filled.
The design and installation of the solar energy solution did not come without its challenges. The hospital’s rooves consist of a mish-mash of decades of extensions, with a number of obstacles that create irregular shading patterns that can compromise a solar system if designed poorly. As usual, our electrical engineering team rose to the occasion and conceptualised a design that would effectively supply 25% of the hospital’s electricity needs, with 75% of the hospital’s available roof space covered in solar panels.
To gain maximum efficiency and performance out of their system, the Friendlies went with absolute top-of-the-range solar system components. At our recommendation, they elected to install commercial-grade 435W Sunpower solar panels. These panels are so efficient that NASA uses them in space. They also elected to use SolarEdge inverters with module-level power optimisers – which get the most out of each individual panel.
The larger 435W panels made sense for the hospital, as they could generate more power per panel across fewer panels and less roof space.
Because of the irregular roof shading patterns at different times of day and year, it was absolutely vital for the Friendlies Hospital to make use of a SolarEdge power optimising solar inverter system. Our modelling had showed that a traditional string inverter system would have lost too much power to be viable. The power optimising system instead allows each panel to operate independently – similar to micro inverters – and ensures maximum efficiency and output per panel. Having individually performing panels not only increases efficiency and output substantially, but it also allows for easy pinpointing of faults and carrying out repairs and maintenance of such a large system.
The scale of the project certainly required some extra project management. The installation of the 1253 solar panels was completed in several stages to ensure the safety of our local contractors from Elvery’s Electrical Service, as well as the hospital staff and patients during the installation phase.
System cost: $1,147,940 ex GST
Reduction in electricity consumption by 25% or 1,148,000kWh in the first year
919,000kWh per year through solar PV
229,000kWh per year through LED lighting
Savings of over $3 million over 10 years
Payback of four years
The system has now been fully commissioned and is performing well. The expected reduction in electricity consumption is 25% or 919,000kWh per year. The LED lighting upgrade adds a 229,000kWh reduction to the tab, totalling over 1MWh of savings per year, or over $3 Million over ten years. The payback of the project, however, is just four years.
The hospital will then own the system outright, and have plenty of extra cashflow available for more of the great work they do.
Friendly Society Private Hospital Business Development Manager, Stuart Bonnett, said,
“We believe that environmental sustainability is the only way forward. Through solar electricity, solar hot water and LED lighting, this system will save The Friendlies millions of dollars. As a not-for-profit hospital, that is millions of dollars that go back into services for our patients and this community.”
GEM Energy CEO, Jack Hooper, commented,
“The Friendlies are a great example of an organisation looking to secure their energy costs and provide a huge carbon off-set. Many local business owners understand how much of an impact soaring electricity prices have had on their profitability. A good quality solar installation gives them the opportunity to secure their energy costs and improve the financial and environment sustainability of their business”.
The Friendly Society Private Hospital was facing a dire outlook with electricity bill hikes of 30%, bringing the yearly electricity bill to well over $1million. The 25% bill reduction to be achieved through solar PV, combined with other energy efficiency measures such as LED lighting upgrades and five new solar hot water systems, will instead put more than $3million back into the hospital.
Additional solar panels or batteries such as a Tesla Powerpack can be added in the future, as all of GEM Energy’s solar installations are readily expandable.
The Friendly Society Private Hospital solar installation is the largest of its kind on a hospital in Australia, and GEM Energy are proud to support this exemplary organisation in their pursuit of more efficient operations and lower carbon emissions. We would like to thank the hospital management for putting their trust in our company and big thanks also go out to our fantastic local installers at Elvery’s Electrical Service.