Solar Panels at the Cincinnati Zoo: Great innovations that should be more heavily utilized

Many think that because I’m to the political right of Ted Cruz, that I don’t enjoy green technology. Contrary to the belief, I enjoy innovative technology regardless of the political sensibilities. I’m certainly not against green technology when it makes sense and is not uttered with religious-like fervor through belief in speculative science which indirectly attempts to undercut capitalist endeavors. With that said I was in for several surprises at the Cincinnati Zoo which greatly impressed me when I went there for the first time in several years in early April 2015 just as the flowers were blooming after a day of heavy rain.

I was loosely keeping track of events at my hometown zoo which I have always been proud of. My wife and I had been there so many times and never really saw any improvements so we took a break for a bit. I haven’t even driven down that particular stretch of Vine Street in at least six years, so I had no idea about the wonderful solar panels built in the new Vine Street parking lot. My wife and I have often given out season passes to the zoo during Christmas because we like to support the zoo, but we personally hadn’t gone in a while.   My kids are all in their twenties now and our grandchildren have been too young. We have one grandson who is at the prime age, so we went with him for the first time and I was astonished by what we had discovered at the Cincinnati Zoo.

imageWhen I was a kid I loved going to the zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo is the second oldest zoo in America and has always been considered one of the top destinations in the country. At 16 years old I went to the San Diego Zoo, which was considered the best in America in the mid 1980s but I always thought it wasn’t by much. The zoo in Cincinnati has always been something I was proud of in my home town so I was eager to share it with my grandson and now grown daughter.

So I was in for a surprise when I tried to enter the parking lot that I always did when I was a child—the old one. I found I had to drive all the way around the block and park at the Vine Street entrance. I remembered that they were building a new Vine Street entrance when we came down for the Festival of Lights a half a decade ago, so I knew about the parking lot, but I had never seen the bridge that went over Vine Street or the new buildings consisting of the new heavily renovated entrance which turned out to be spectacular. That’s when we pulled in and I was astonished to see all the solar panels covering the parking lot.image

I’m not a very big fan of solar panels because they take up so much space for what you get in energy feed back. However, the way that the Cincinnati Zoo utilized them was absolutely perfect; they essentially spent something around $11 million dollars to cover the parking lot for their guests dramatically cooling down the surrounding air during their intense summer season. The whole parking lot was basically a large car port which would really help visitors keep their cars cool while they enjoyed the zoo avoiding that terrible heat that often happens when a car has sat in the sun all day when visiting amusement parks as the sun beats on those cars for hours. The Cincinnati Zoo led by Mark Fisher had done something that I thought was incredibly smart with solar panel technology and found the perfect dual use. They gave their millions of yearly visitors a car port to park under while generating approximately 20% of their power needs at the zoo. Solar panels are expensive and spending $11 million to save a bit on the electric bill by itself doesn’t make much immediate sense. But improving the customer experience while doing so does, and I was extremely impressed by what the zoo had done with just the parking lot. Then we went inside.image

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is as I said the second oldest zoo in America, just 14 months younger than the Philadelphia Zoo. On Vine Street in Avondale when the neighborhood was the premier suburb of Cincinnati in 1874 visitors entered off that classic street which extends from there to the south through the University of Cincinnati to downtown. The first thing visitors would see off that original entrance was the Reptile House which is the oldest zoo building in the United States built in 1875. So we are talking about some legitimate history here. The architect building the new entrance did a noticeably fabulous job of constructing a skyline from the vantage point of the parking lot that was consistent with the homes built around Vine Street. If I didn’t know where the zoo was, I would have thought that the new entrance was simply part of the community, and not the entrance to a major amusement park, which the Cincinnati Zoo is. It was an ascetic decision that greatly impressed me. But not as much as what the zoo had done to the original old parking lot which I noticed instantly after we had visited the new giraffe area.image

Starting in 2010 through 2014 were four phases of a long-planned exhibit called Africa, which sat on 8-acres of former parking lot. A fifth phase was still under construction which would feature Nile hippos opening in 2016, but the four opened phases simply stunned me with their innovation.   New to the zoo were these magnificent glass barriers which put little kids right up to the lions and gave the feeling of an open African savannah teeming with Africa’s most spectacular animals, like zebras, gazelles, impalas, ostriches, storks, cranes, and of course lions. It was very Jurassic Park inspired and was a massive improvement over my previous visits.image

Yet even more impressive was the new Base Camp Café which is rumored to be the “greenest” restaurant in America, which was so effective I didn’t even think about it. It sat on a bit of a hill overlooking the four phases of the African exhibit with the kind of charm and utilization found in Disney theme parks. The dining area outside of the Base Camp was vast and well suited to allow diners to watch the animals while they ate. As we ordered our food gone were the employees at the zoo from old where they were sometimes a little grumpy and acted as if they were doing you a favor by talking to you. Here were very energetic employees who knew they were in competition with other tourism dollars and they wanted our money. They were polite, helpful, and fast with an eye on quality. They had an expediter at the counter to keep food moving from a very well-staffed kitchen working hard. That was good to see. Upon getting our food and sitting down to eat it outside I kept thinking that vacationers to Disney World or the actual African Serengeti were not so lucky to have such a view. The food was of a high enough quality to be considered good, but the view was simply spectacular. There really wasn’t a bad seat in the house and the whole Base Camp restaurant was stationed at such an angle that all the exhibits blended together into one giant plain. The animals were of course separated by different elevations of pooled water, which kept the lions from eating the gazelles, but from the point of view of the restaurant you really couldn’t tell. That was another brilliant move by the architect—who clearly knew what they were doing.image

Throughout the rest of the park were small little improvements that showed a major investment of energy in updating the historic zoo to the level of competition influenced by the Disney Parks and offerings of Kings Island just up the road. Everything was just top-notch and improving. To make matters even better were all the flowers that had been planted and were blooming in the early April sun. The colors were just stunning. I love spring anyway, but the zoo took everything I love about spring and accentuated it dramatically with a visual display that rivals their winter time Festival of Lights.image

Needless to say, I had a nice visit to the zoo with my family. It made me happy my daughter had kids just because it gave me an opportunity to return to a zoo I had gone to all my life, but had grown used to. If not for my little grandson, I might not have gone to the zoo so soon, because I thought I had seen and done everything that they could offer at such a city zoo location. But the Cincinnati Zoo showed that they were not happy just being one of the oldest zoos in the country with a respectable reputation for innovation over the years. They were still growing and wanting to get better. Their work with the parking lot and the African exhibit showed me that they were willing to compete directly with Disney World and Sea World for tourism dollars because they are offering a comparable experience. I had no problem spending a good deal of money at the zoo as if we were traveling to some exotic location to see the animals. I would go to the zoo again just to have lunch at the Base Camp.image

I was surprised to learn that only the Cincinnati Zoo had utilized the solar panel parking lot concept. Conceived in 2011 it is still the only one of its kind anywhere—which again surprised me. I mean the sun shines regardless of whether someone captures some of it’s energy—so why not grab some of it for lights and to run a few of the water pumps that filter the water at theme parks like Disney World and Kings Island? I can only imagine what the impact would be at those two destinations if they did with their parking lot what the zoo had done. I have been to Disney World in the heat of mid summer and have returned to a car so hot that it took the whole ride back to the hotel to cool off with the windows down and air blowing. If they did what the Cincinnati Zoo had done, the cars would have all been shielded by the sun and the parks would have received some power to help with their energy costs. For a park like Disney World it would likely cost $200 million dollars which is a third of the cost of a whole new park. But it would enhance the customer experience while cutting down energy costs with their electric bill. The Cincinnati Zoo should be the showcase of how and why we should use solar panels, and if more businesses did the same type of thing, the cost might actually come down.image

The solar panels at the zoo set up on just 6,400 solar arrays take about six acres and could power 200 homes of average size for a year. It really exhibits how roofing material made of solar arrays could capture energy to soften the blow of escalating electric bills. It’s a smart idea that should be gaining traction, but nobody but the zoo has yet to take that step. Granted, it’s a radical departure from tradition, and it is science that steps beyond politics. I’m sure Duke Energy would lobby the Ohio senate such as what is behind Ohio Senate Bill 310 to freeze state renewable energy standards for 2015 and 2016. imageThe zoo was able to pay for the solar array with a multitude of options like tax credits, accelerated depreciation, and some debt financing, but it all paid off in what they were able to create. In my opinion, there should be a lot more of these solar panels anywhere that the sun beats down on a car in the hot summer sun, from shopping malls, to Cedar Point, and sports stadiums. It was a remarkably innovative idea that should be copied by everyone. And it made me proud to see that my favorite zoo, The Cincinnati Zoo, was the first to use them in a way that made sense and paved the way for what our future should hold. The Cincinnati Zoo is an organization that has always pushed the limit with innovation, and that is a tradition that looks to continue into the future. And what a treat it is to see that innovation at work. It made my trip to the zoo a wonder which I hadn’t expected. It reminded me of what a special place the Cincinnati Zoo is, and made me proud of all those season passes we passed out over the years even though we hadn’t gone ourselves. It was a pleasant surprise to say the least.

Rich Hoffman


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