The animal lovers who visit the Cincinnati Zoo will soon be able to peer at a new exhibition—one that provides shade, encourages clean air, and loves to soak up the sun.
It’s a new solar system that will soon cover nearly four acres of the zoo’s massive concrete parking lot.
The carport and solar canopy will be the largest public urban solar system in the country, and Cincinnati Zoo plans to complete the project by the end of April this year.
The solar array will sit atop the carport’s roof that covers 800 out of 1,000 parking spaces at the zoo’s main entrance.
In an interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, Mark Fisher—the zoo’s senior director of facilities—said, “Some people wonder what the heck it is, and those who have heard about it are surprised at how big it is.”
Some people wonder what the heck it is, and those who have heard about it are surprised at how big it is.
--Mark Fisher, Cincinnati Zoo's director of facilities
The array consists of a 6,400 photovoltaic system that spreads across 100 metal panels, which are 15 to 18 feet high.
This solar system has the ability to produce 1.56 megawatts of electricity—nearly 20 percent of the zoo’s annual need. It will produce enough energy to power 200 homes a year.
That is enough energy to power 55,000 energy efficient CFL bulbs for a year, or even enough to power a Wii for 95 million hours.
Furthermore, the system will be connected to the grid, and will often send energy back into the utility.
Heating up education with the sun
Nearly 1.3 million visitors venture to Cincinnati’s zoo every year. By building a solar installation in the parking lot, officials think that an interest in solar power will be fired up.
"When you think of the number of people who visit the zoo, particularly younger kids, the educational aspect will be fantastic," Raju Yenamandra told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Yenamandra is the vice president at SolarWorld, a German-based company provided the solar panels for the project.
"The education aspect is worth a lot," he said.
He has such a positive perspective of the solar project that he helped to speed up the production process, so now the project will soon be finished.
Once the solar array is up and running, zoo visitors will also be able to use an interactive kiosk to learn how the solar panels work and how much energy is being produced.
“We believe that the combination of size and public accessibility, makes this solar array the most impactful array of any in the entire country,” agreed Mark Fisher.
Fisher is the Senior Director of Facilities, Planning, and Sustainability at the Cincinnati Zoo.
“No where else has an array of this magnitude been placed in such an urban environment, allowing our visitors, and the general public at large, to be able to see first hand what solar photovoltaic energy is all about. The education potential of this advanced energy project is off the charts,” he said.
Other businesses soaking up the benefits
Not only does this solar project help to reduce the carbon footprint and minimize use of fossil fuels, but developers also agree that this project demonstrates how to incorporate clean energy with large public spaces.
The project has already received attention from a dozen other zoos, including zoos in California and Oregon that have called to learn more.
On the local scale, businesses that have helped with the project’s production and manufacturing are also benefiting.
For example, a business in St. Bernard called Protek Park Solar constructed and installed the metal structures that support the solar panels.
In an interview with The Enquirer, the president of Protek Park, Dana Rudolph, said, “We’re bidding multiple projects all over the country.”
We believe that the combination of size and public accessibility, makes this solar array the most impactful array of any in the entire country.
--Mark Fisher, Cincinnati Zoo's director of facilities
Protek Park specializes in designing, manufacturing and installing solar parking canopies.
The company has become the leading supplier of solar carports in New Jersey, and they specifically customize each project to meet the necessary traits of each location.
For example, their Richard Stockton installation, which is one of the largest solar carports in New Jersey, is located near Atlantic City and was designed to withstand 120 mph coastal winds.
Melink Corporation is at the forefront of the project because they are installing the solar panels. They will also own the energy rights of the solar production.
Steve Melink, the corporation’s founder and president, said he expects that the zoo will become a model for solar technology, and its reputation “will help put Cincinnati on the map as a national leader in the adoption and promotion of clean energy.”
Melink Corporation leads the project
Melink Corporation has designed the solar panels at the Cincinnati Zoo and is nearly finsihed installing them. Melink will also be operating them.
The project is being constructed under a PPA, a power purchase agreement, which says that the solar panel manufacturer or retailer (an independent power producer) will finance, install, and own the solar panels.
The person receiving the solar panels pays nothing for the installation—in this case, the zoo.
Over time, the panels generate clean energy that is produced by the sun and the provider (Melink) acts as the utility company, but bills the output of the solar system at a discounted rate.
Melink plans to sell the electricity generated by its solar panels to the zoo for about 8 cents a kilowatt-hour, which is close to what the zoo currently pays its electric provider, an Akron-based First Energy Corp.
However, in this agreement the solar rate is fixed, which disables the price from increasing over a seven-year period. At the end of the seven-year agreement, the zoo has the option to buy the system.
Weighing the costs
The zoo’s new exhibit, a 1.56-megawatt solar system, will cost about $11 million.
Specific details about the project’s funding are not disclosed. However, as a leader with green building practices, PNC Bank has funded the project for Melink through New Market Tax Credits, which are low-income economic development tax credits.
“Our interdisciplinary team of experts in tax credit investing and green energy working with others participating in the project, demonstrates what great things our community can achieve through creative public and private partnerships,” said Kay Geiger, the President of PNC Bank, Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
The non-profit Uptown Consortium is contributing some of its federal economic development credits to help support the project, and there will also be support from the National Development Council and FirstEnergy Solutions.
According to Fisher, the deal could not work financially until the non-profit Uptown Consortium and New York City-based National Development Council agreed to contribute New Market Tax Credits toward the project.
Additionally, all of the critical parts of the solar canopy have been manufactured either locally, or in other locations within the United States to help promote economic growth.
As a part of the project’s agreement, it has committed to funding 10 scholarships at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College in the Green Workforce Development Program.
The zoo’s energy bill
Fisher thinks the project has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in electricity, according to his interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer.
The zoo has also implemented a variety of methods to help conserve their energy.
Every year the zoo hosts a Festival of Lights, and as a part of their Go Green program, LED bulbs are now used to illuminate the zoo’s grounds during the festivities.
Fisher explained that even after expanding the Christmas display to have more than 2 million lights, the use of LEDs sliced the festival’s energy bill in half.
The zoo’s electricity bill doesn’t stop at lighting. The cost of pumping and moving water through the animal’s tanks is the largest pocket book cruncher.
Fisher said it costs $40,000 a year to filter water in the 150,000-gallon Manatee tank exhibit.
More about Melink going green
When Steve Melink founded Melink Corporation in 1987 the company’s focus was on HVAC testing—Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning—and the technology of indoor system designs.
Over time and with experience, Melink realized that conventional constant-volume kitchen ventilation systems wasted a lot of energy.
As a result, he developed the Intelli-Hood, which allows the fan speed to vary depending on temperature and optic sensors.
In 2004 Melink furthered the energy efficiency of the company after he attended a green building conference, where he was inspired to build Melink’s new headquarters as the first LEED Gold NC office building in Ohio. Even now the building is being reformed to become a net zero energy building by the end of this year.
Naturally, designing and installing solar photovoltaic systems became another limb in Melink’s business.
We want to make a difference, and this was the scale we wanted.
--Steve Melink, Founder and President of Melink Corporation
According to interview with USA Today Fisher, Melink and Jeremy Chapman (Melink’s business development manager) were introduced at a green building conference in Phoenix two years ago, and then the project for the Cincinnati Zoo began to grow wings.
Fisher was interested in expanding the zoo's green profile, and Melink was looking for a project to demonstrate its developing solar installation business.
Fisher decided a great place to start was with the zoo’s parking lot.
Melink, which at the time was developing a smaller pre-engineered solar array system for homes and businesses, decided to purse the project.
"We want to make a difference," Melink said, "and this was the scale we wanted."
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