Cincinnati Zoo to add biggest solar array yet to go more ‘green’

Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden held a formal ground-breaking earlier this month for a 2.8-megawatt solar array set to tower above its Euclid Avenue parking lot.

The roughly 5,000-panel structure will provide shade for about 800 cars and buses parked under it when construction wraps up in May or early June. It will also generate considerable power – and maybe even some financial savings – for the zoo and its neighbors.

Mark Fisher, vice president of facilities and sustainability, views the project as crucial to the zoo’s goal of achieving net zero status by 2025.

“We have big plans for solar,” said Fisher, who is responsible for overseeing the zoo’s numerous and varied green initiatives.

Sunny days are good for business in many ways

Tapping into the power of the Sun is nothing new for the Cincinnati Zoo. It installed its first array about 18 years ago; a relatively small set of solar panels on the Harold C. Schott Education Center.

Including upcoming projects, the zoo has invested in eight arrays of various sizes, either on its 75-acre Avondale compound or other facilities across the region.

In 2011, solar efforts ramped up with the construction of a 1.56-megawatt array in its main parking lot on Vine Street. To this day, it remains the largest publicly accessible urban solar array in the country. It has helped the zoo’s Avondale campus operate “off the grid” – meaning it’s not drawing energy from the local electrical grid during that time – numerous times over the last decade, Fisher said.

Rendering of the new solar array

While the concept of solar isn’t new, what has changed is the panels themselves. Fisher said the technology – and his team’s understanding of how to use it – has come a long way since the zoo’s initial dive into solar energy in 2006.

This new array is about the same physical size as the record-setter from 2011, but it’ll produce more than twice the output. The energy created compares to that of 16,019 gas-powered cars driven for a year, Fisher said.

Once the new panels are online, two thirds of the zoo’s electrical needs will come from its parking lots.

“This new array is a good example of that [improved technology],” he continued. “It’ll occupy less physical space but will generate almost twice as much power as the current array.”

Commitment to going green

Dubbed the Greenest Zoo in America by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the Cincinnati Zoo laid out ambitious plans in 2018 to achieve total net zero status within seven years.

Put simply, net zero refers to a situation where a building, company or organization finds an equilibrium between the amount of greenhouse gas it produces and the amount it removes from the atmosphere.

Over the years, the Cincinnati Zoo reached major milestones toward achieving that status through a mixture of operational changes and cutting-edge technology. For instance, the Avondale facility has saved billions of gallons of water because of its on-site stormwater management program. The organization has also prioritized green construction by building all new facilities and habits to LEED Platinum standards.

Last Mile Food Rescue collects food from a Cincinnati Zoo event.

Waste has been a more difficult challenge to tackle, Fisher said. That’s due in part to the huge amount of organic waste generated by its thousands of plants and animals and all the trash created by its roughly 1.5 million visitors every year.

To address those issues, the zoo is testing an aerobic bio-digester to turn food waste into a soil amending product that it can use in its gardens or sell in its gift shop. It is also doing things like donating all excess food to Cincinnati-based Last Mile Food Rescue, which redistributes to feed those in need.

Ben Liles, Cincinnati Zoo’s manager of park services, said in October that only 100 pounds of the 10,660 pounds of waste created by its four major events in 2023 made its way to a landfill.

“These numbers along with the food that we were able to donate represents a better than 99% diversion for our zero waste events,” he said. “We consider that a tremendous success.”

Helping neighbors near, far go green

One of the zoo’s biggest environmental success areas is solar energy. But the zoo isn’t focusing on its properties alone. Through its Community Solar Resiliency Program, the zoo is working to enhance solar and off-grid energy offerings to organizations and neighborhoods as well.

Rather than have half-empty boxes shipped to Cincinnati for its newest array, the zoo ordered 165 kilowatts worth of extra panels to donate to several neighborhoods. Panels will soon be on top of churches, community centers and schools across Avondale, East Price Hill and Bond Hill.

“Our goal is to share the benefits of solar power with the community,” Fisher said.

Construction underway on the new array

A large portion of the zoo’s Bowyer Farm is home to one of the largest solar arrays in Southwest Ohio. The renewable energy coming from that 30-megawatt array in Warren County will be bought by companies in the region to help them reach their respective sustainability goals.

The zoo team is adding grazing sheep to that 600-acre property this spring to keep the soil healthy for production and to eliminate mowing emissions. They’re also planting a 5-acre pollinator habitat on the land surrounding this solar array.

Other solar projects planned for 2024 include a new array for a community-based initiative in Kenya, Africa, that brings property owners together for effective resource and utility management. The Cincinnati Zoo and the South Rift Association of Land Owners have worked together for more than a decade.

Right now, though, Fisher and his team are looking forward to this spring when they can cut the ribbon on the solar project in the zoo’s backyard.

“Our hope is that just seeing, and parking under, our big arrays will inspire zoo visitors to install solar panels at home,” he said.

Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

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