Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains is grabbing heat from the hospital’s buildings that would otherwise go unused

John Dillon’s been stealing heat for the better part of a year.

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He doesn’t need to look over his shoulder for the police because the director of engineering at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains is grabbing heat from the hospital’s buildings that would otherwise go unused.

It’s called cogeneration, and the environmentally friendly technology is cutting the hospital’s annual electricity purchases by $360,000, a 70 percent drop.

“I can keep the boiler off from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and can do that through the end of September,” Dillon said yesterday. “We used to run it 24/7.”

Places like Burke burn natural gas to heat their water — something hospitals use a lot of — and rather than letting the excess energy from that evaporate into thin air, cogeneration units capture that heat and direct it to a use that would otherwise need electricity.

It’s literally recycling, and Burke’s using it to save a buck a year per square foot of its physical plant.

“We did it to be part of the going-green movement, but it’s a real cost savings,” he said. “The higher the prices of fuel, the better this system is. Plus, we take load off the (electrical) grid.”

Burke and the 15 other hospitals in Westchester announced a partnership this week to reduce the impact on the local environment, in conjunction with Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano.

The hospitals’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprint are in keeping with Spano’s climate change initiative to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by the county by 20 percent by 2015.

Other Westchester hospitals’ green initiatives include recycling medical supplies, offering vanpools, replacing elevators and water heaters and using eco-friendly cleaning products.

Burke’s CEO, Dr. Mary Beth Walsh, gets extra kudos, as far as I’m concerned, because she’s banned smoking on the 60-acre campus.

These bigger moves don’t come without cost, of course, and you can’t just forget that large, upfront investments aren’t in the cards for everyone, especially these days.

But the $2.8 million installation price, even throwing in annual maintenance costs, should be paid back in a decade — less if energy prices continue to rise as they have in the past 10 years.

After that, those savings continue, not to mention with less electricity used, the air is cleaner — all from making sure we’re squeezing everything we can out of all our energy uses.

The estimate for Burke’s cogeneration is that over 10 years, it will reduce emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 2,624 cars off the road.

Obviously, these numbers are minuscule compared to all the activity going on in our air quality-challenged region, but as the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen used to say about the federal budget: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money.”

That’s why individual steps like Burke’s and those of the other hospitals make a difference. They save money, leave more energy on the table for others and make greater use of our resources.

Sounds simple, but it points to the reality of protecting our environment: There has to be a real economic reason for making a change or we won’t do it.

All good intentions aside, if this cogeneration system didn’t pay for itself in 10 years, it wouldn’t have gotten out of the starting gate.

So the next time you’re grousing about gas prices at the pump, think whether the pain of a $45 fill-up might make you batch all your errands into one trip rather than spread them out over an entire Saturday. If it does, higher gas prices are actually doing something for the environment.

Saving money is a basic tenet of our society. We all want to do it. And we’re smart enough to innovate when we need to.

As I see it, that’s our only chance. 

Otherwise, the cockroaches, ants and other more organized societies one day will be crawling over our remains, squeezing energy out of us like we do out of the long-gone dinosaurs.

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