As more organizations realize the benefits of solar energy, they're finding creative ways to incorporate solar systems into their infrastructure—even among lions, elephants and giraffes. Throughout the U.S. and even the world, solar powered zoos are gaining popularity. Considering the amount of energy it takes to maintain appropriate habitat temperatures, refrigerate the animals’ food and power automated kiosks, solar power can provide significant savings on electricity bills.
The Knoxville Zoo made the news recently when it installed nearly 200 solar modules on the roof of its African elephant habitat. The $180,000 system is expected to produce more than 55,000 kilowatt hours of power annually, which will help ease the financial burden of the Tennessee zoo’s $825,000 annual utility bill.
Solar powered zoos aren’t new. Two years ago the Cincinnati Zoo installed nearly four acres of solar panels over its parking lot, creating a solar canopy. This allows visitors to park in the shade, while using the energy harnessed from the sun to help power the zoo’s daily operations. The Cincinnati zoo’s $11 million solar canopy has 6,400 PV solar modules covering 800 parking spaces and produces enough electricity to power 200 homes each year. USA Today called the project one of the “largest public urban solar displays in the country.” Following the Ohio zoo’s lead, the San Diego Zoo installed a solar canopy over its parking lot and incorporated electric vehicle (EV) charging stations as well.
In Wisconsin, solar panels were added to the Milwaukee County Zoo’s main entrance in 2010. The energy powers the zoo’s three electric towing engines; each one pulling a series of 15-passenger carts that drive visitors through the exhibits.
The Houston Zoo had a similar idea. It uses solar power to charge 30 electric carts that zoo employees use to move animal food, supplies, and even smaller animals through the Texas park. Aside from savings on fuel costs, these EVs can easily last for 10 to 12 hours each day since they are constantly charging, said Peter Riger, the zoo’s vice president of conservation.
The 28 kW PV array at California’s Oakland Zoo power the park’s education center and many of its talking animal boxes. The system also powers an educational kiosk that teaches visitors about the benefits of renewable energy.
Since many zoos are nonprofits, they can’t monetize or use the tax credits or other incentives directly. Instead, they are left to rely on donations, creative partnerships and third-party solar installers that can purchase the PV system and apply for the tax credits. For example, NRG Energy donated the manpower and the money—$111,000—to convert the Houston Zoo’s carts to run on electricity and solar. The Knoxville Zoo partnered with Wampler’s Farm Sausage and Family Brands International, as part of its effort to support clean energy initiatives. The sausage company paid for the 50 kW system and the zoo agreed to sell Wampler’s food products throughout the park.
"One great thing that this does is it puts the Knoxville Zoo in a leadership position with other zoos all over the country in sustainability,” Wampler President Ted Wampler Jr. told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "And that is something the zoo really wants to do."