A clean-burning fuel cell system is central to the energy-reduction strategy at the recently opened Sutter Santa Rosa (Calif.) Regional Hospital.

The on-site fuel cell system generates up to 70 percent of the Sutter Health facility’s more than $280 million worth of electric power, relying on a technology that uses an electrochemical process to turn natural gas and air into electric power without using combustion.

Occupying roughly the size of two parking spaces in a Sutter Santa Rosa parking lot, the unit generates 375 kilowatts of power continuously. Fuel cells, which health care facilities in the United States are just beginning to use as a power source, emit much lower levels of carbon dioxide than do coal-fueled electric power plants.

Despite the large amount of power the cells can generate, California state regulations require that the hospital, which opened in October 2014, not rely solely on the on-site unit.

“We have to be hooked up to the grid,” says Sutter Health’s program manager, Tom Minard. “But when our fuel cell is running, we take much less power.”

Even though the health system purchased the unit and a 10-year maintenance contract from Bloom Energy for several million dollars, the technology is expected to pay for itself in six years. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which supplies natural gas and grid electricity to the hospital, offered Sutter Health a financial incentive to adopt the technology.