As you are reading this, workers are busy constructing what will be the largest publicly accessible, urban solar array in the country — a 1.56-megawatt system with 6,400 solar panels installed on a canopy structure over the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garddens’ main entrance parking lot on Vine Street. Many zoo visitors (especially all the moms out there) will be happy to know that 800 of the zoo’s 1,000 parking spaces available in the Vine Street parking lot will be shaded by the solar panel structure.
While you and the kids stay cool in the shade, the solar panels will absorb the sunlight and covert it into clean energy that will supply 20 percent of the zoo’s energy needs. To put that in perspective, that is enough electricity to power 200 homes or enough electricity to play your favorite Wii game for 95 million hours. Many days the zoo will be completely self-sustaining and actually sending energy back to Duke Energy Company.
A year and a half ago, the people at Melink Corporation pitched the idea of this big project to Mark Fisher, senior director of facilities, planning and sustainability at the Cincinnati Zoo. Fisher, a guy on a mission to make not only his life (just ask his kids!) but his workplace greener, was on board from the first mention of it. However, because of the seemingly monstrous project, Fisher admits, "In my gut I felt a one percent chance of it actually happening."
It wasn’t until the ball got rolling and partnerships merged with Uptown Consortium, National Development Council, FirstEnergy Solutions and PNC Bank that Fisher finally began seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Nothing like this had ever been done before, but lots of lawyers and the PNC Bank financial team helped work out the details. No tax-payer money or money from the zoo was used at any point. Instead, the funds for the $11 million project came from energy financing and New Market Tax Credits.
Once PNC gave the okay, it was full speed ahead! The Zoo was given 13 weeks to complete the construction, and after starting in January the solar array is on schedule to be up and running by April 15.
Every piece of this contraption was made in the United States, with many of the pieces being built right here in Cincinnati. To localize it even more, every hand that helped construct the solar panel canopy lives in the Cincinnati area.
Some of the workers on-site are students from Cincinnati State Technical & Community College. The zoo is partnering with the school to help students gain experience they need installing and maintaining the solar panels. In addition to the experience, the zoo is helping to pay for their education with 10 scholarships the zoo has set up specifically for students in the Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology — Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency certificate program.
The benefit of education through this new project doesn’t end there. Kiosks located near the zoo’s Go Green Garden will educate visitors about the performance as well as benefits of the system and solar energy in general.
As for what is next for the zoo, Fisher hopes to, "take this show on the road and showing other zoos, ‘If we can do this, so can you and here is how.’ I want to get people and the industry excited about this."
Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens