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California Power Shortage Brings New Focus on Conservation

Nancy Tarleton Landis

Heightened awareness of energy consumption seemed to be the main effect of California's power shortage on health-system pharmacists, as of mid-February. Patient care has not been compromised, according to conversations with pharmacists at a few institutions. The California Healthcare Association (CHA) is working to ensure that all hospitals in the state are exempt from rolling blackouts by power companies.

With the rising cost of energy, the major concern is financial. Hospital departments are being asked to curtail unnecessary power use by reducing lighting and turning off equipment promptly after use.

Roger Richter, of CHA, said the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Southern California Electric both have a policy whereby, to be exempt from rolling blackouts, a hospital must have more than 100 beds and not have adequate generation from backup generators. In addition to these two utility companies, said Richter, numerous metropolitan utility districts serve parts of the state, and in most cases they exempt hospitals from rolling blackouts.

Another issue, Richter said, is interruptible-service contracts. Hospitals that have such contracts with PG&E agree to a maximum of 100 hours of interruptible service during a year; those under Southern California Electric, to a maximum of 150 hours. Customers with such contracts get a 15% reduction in their rate if they interrupt service when asked to do so. However, if customers do not interrupt their service, their rate for electricity during the requested interruption period is multiplied by 100. This means that hospitals unable to interrupt their service were paying for 100 days of electricity in one day. Richter said that the electric companies, especially PG&E, used all of the interruptible-service time during the month of January. Thus, he said, "We had numerous hospitals that for a one-week period had unexpected $500,000-plus electric bills."

Richter said the only interruptions in patient care reported have been cancellations of elective surgery and some clinic services at a few hospitals because of rolling blackouts.

Pharmacy operations in hospitals appear not to be directly affected by the power shortage. At the home infusion pharmacy associated with Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital and Stanford University Hospital and Clinics, director Fred Nishioka said arrangements have been made for an emergency generator to be brought in if a power outage occurs. "At least our refrigerated drugs would remain cold. If this happened in the middle of the day, we would have to halt our operation for the estimated one to two hours [of the blackout]." Nishioka said the current focus is on conservation and planning, as well as educating patients about what to do if their homes are affected.

Concerning the long-term economic impact of the energy shortage, Nishioka said, "When using any type of automation, the power requirements are going to be taken into consideration. More people will be asking vendors about the energy costs of automated systems. But we'll also look at how much human energy a device would save. Every person who works uses energy: lighting, heating, and a computer and printer."

As for Nishioka’s automated compounder for total parenteral nutrient formulas, "At this time, I'm not thinking about how much energy the system pulls versus doing the tasks manually. There's not a lot of choice; conversion to a manual or alternate system would be very costly and time intensive."