We all know that sustainability is good for the environment, but it is also an excellent way of reducing overheads in lean times. By Sue Nelson
Most vets are looking to lower their electricity costs, while simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint. One of the biggest impacts you can make on your power bill is to convert to solar. Two veterinary practices at opposite sides of the country have taken full advantage of the elements and favourable State and Federal Government grants and tax incentives by installing solar arrays on their premises—and the savings are significant.
Dr Denis Ryan started Torquay Animal House, in the Victorian coastal town, nearly 30 years ago as a sole practitioner. Back then the practice saw a mix of large and small animals—Dr Ryan had a special interest in South American camelids. “Over that time, the town grew from 3000 back then to about 16,000 now,” he says. “And we morphed into a small animal practice.”
About five years ago, Dr Ryan asked an engineer who specialised in renewables to do an energy audit both at the practice and at home, where he runs a boarding cattery. Following the audit, he decided to invest in more than a hundred solar panels—56 at his practice and 48 at home. “The driver was feeling good about making our own power,” he says. But there was also a financial incentive. “Government grants were good then, as they are now with tax deductions for small business.
“We are very happy with the results in both places,” Dr Ryan adds. “The pay-off was predicted to be six to seven years, but because of government tax breaks we have already broken even, and are now saving about 75 per cent on power bills. Environmentally we have saved the equivalent of a small forest with five years of solar power generated from 100 odd panels.”
Up in Queensland, which sees a fair bit of sun all year round, the Townsville Veterinary Clinic, which sees larger patients—mostly horses but occasionally cattle—also boasts around $25,000 worth of solar panels, which has reduced bills dramatically from around $7000 to $1500 per quarter. “They were installed three or four years ago,” says practice manager Carmel Cummins. “And they’ve paid for themselves already—done and dusted.”
The main thing gobbling up power at the Townsville practice is air conditioning, which is on year-round, whether it’s winter or summer. “We need it on 24/7 for our two pharmacies and for our servers,” Cummins says. “That was a huge cost to us.”
Solar technology today is reliable and efficient. “Even during the big rain 18 months ago, the solar panels delivered, because there was enough UV light still around,” Cummins says. “The technology doesn’t need constant bright sunlight to deliver, it just needs that consistency of light. We’ve never had a day that it goes down—we can track how each of the 80 panels is performing on screen. We’ve never even had to make a service call.
“During the day it takes care of 100 per cent of energy needs. The only costs we’d have are the night-time costs. That’s why we’ve talked about going to battery which would take us right off the grid. The cost of batteries compared with their life span is not quite there yet, but we’re keeping an eye on it.”
Dr Denis Ryan says the best advice he got from his renewables engineer at the time was to invest in plenty of panels first time around—to “not skimp, go big—and of course do your homework to get a reputable installer who knows their stuff”.
Many practices use the bulk of their energy during the day, which makes solar a smart option. This might not be the case for practices with different business models and clinical needs. You might not have the roof or surface area to carry a large array, or it might not work with your current power needs.
“Veterinary practice takes in a diverse range of operational environments, but across all aspects of practice the industry can be energy intensive around the clock, due to the need for refrigeration of medicines, sterilisation of surfaces and equipment, and heating and ventilation for the animals that may be staying in the facility,” says Joel Dobrogosz, senior channel manager, Sustainability, at the Business Energy Advice Program (BEAP), an Australian Government initiative funded by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, which offers energy audits and reports to small business owners, including medical practitioners and vets, to help them tackle energy issues.
There is still a range of energy saving measures you can take. New-build practices can plan for optimum orientation of the building, as well as insulation and double glazing to reduce the costs of heating and cooling. And all practices should look at installing LED lighting if they haven’t already.
“Vet practices, many of which operate beyond normal business hours, should definitely check they have the latest lighting options available,” Dobrogosz says. “It is quite common for lighting to make up to 40 per cent of the energy bill when running reception, clinic and boarding facilities. There are regular advancements in the efficiency of lighting, and it pays to take advantage of the rebates available to help reduce costs.
“The success of an energy improvement often comes down to the accurate design and sizing of a solution, plus the quality of installation,” Dobrogosz adds. “Many builders and architects will be able to help you establish a more realistic cost of an improvement, including the tweaks you need to make versus the way you use your spaces—things your solar vendor may not have thought of. If you have a BEAP report on hand, it is much easier to address your practice-specific energy needs and to understand the rebates or grants available, which could make a big difference to the cost of your build and future savings potential.”