Emily Tudor
March 18, 2011
Cincinnati Zoo solar array

Courtesy Dave Jenike

The Cincinnati Zoo’s solar canopy, dubbed the largest urban solar array, will begin reducing the zoo’s carbon footprint beginning in April.

Taking a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo this year is going to be a lot cooler for visitors. Up to 800 cars at a time will be able to park in the shade under the Ohio facility’s new solar canopy. Scheduled for completion in April, the 1.56 megawatt system with 6,400 solar panels is called the largest publicly accessible urban solar array in the country. The best part? The zoo worked with local companies to source the solar panels.

Approximately 20 percent of the zoo’s energy needs will be met by the solar panels. According to Mark Fisher, senior director of facilities, planning and sustainability at the Cincinnati Zoo, on bright, sunny days, the zoo will be able to sell back to the grid and reduce its carbon footprint by 15 percent.

Another highlight of this project is the opportunity for educational outreach.

“This is a monster-sized array in an ultra-urban environment, and it’s publicly accessible,” Fisher says.
With more than 1 million people per year parking under the structure, the zoo has the unique opportunity to teach its visitors about the importance of reducing dependency on fossil fuels in a hands-on way.

“This part of the country has a general ignorance about solar power,” he says. This is the zoo’s opportunity to educate and motivate. “If we can do it, you can, too.”

Conservatively speaking, the solar array will save the zoo $6 million in energy over the next 16 years.
“It’s a financial grand slam for the zoo,” Fisher says.

The $11 million project wasn’t effortless, though. It took stamina and initiative by all parties involved. As a nonprofit organization, the Cincinnati Zoo wasn’t able to receive government tax credits to complete the project.

That’s where Melink Corporation stepped in. The local company is the developer, designer, owner and operator of the project. To make it work financially, Melink owns the system and will sell the energy back to the zoo at a set rate for the next seven years. After that, the zoo has the option to buy the system.

Melink is a provider of energy-efficiency and renewable-energy solutions for the commercial and institutional building industry. From compost to solar energy to the on-site windmill, the company atmosphere reflects sustainability, according to Coleen Hines, Melink marketing director. It also promotes education on energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy as much as possible. Melink designed the zoo’s clean-energy solar array to inspire the community.

“The goal is to revitalize the area and encourage people to work on renewable energy,” Hines says.

“If we can motivate other facilities, and not just zoos, to take similar actions, this has the potential to move the needle,” Fisher says. “We hope to help spur projects elsewhere and let it take on a life of its own. This is our chance to open the floodgates.”

The solar panels are made in the United States, and all the people working to build the project are local to Cincinnati, helping to create local jobs. In addition, the project will fund 10 scholarships at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in its green workforce development program. To be certified in solar installation in Ohio, you need real-life experience, Fisher says. All scholarship recipients will have that opportunity by working on the system at the zoo, Hines says.


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