Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo Goes Solar

The elephants meander about, stopping every now and then to cool off and grab a bite to eat under a giant shade structure at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.

It may not be abundantly obvious to visitors, but as the elephants take a break and fuel up with food, photovoltaic (PV) cells above their heads are capturing solar energy.

Ten PV cells are attached to the shade structure's roof and 55 PV cells are fastened to frames on the roof of the nearby elephant night house.

Combined, the PV cells collect enough solar energy to produce around 15 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power the zoo's Treetop Skyfari, a sky ride that gives visitors a bird's-eye view of the animal park.

The solar array project, designed by Elements Architects: Interior Designers of Tampa, is one part of a two-part collaboration involving the zoo, University of South Florida's Power Center for Utility Explorations and Tampa Electric Co.

The $800,000 project, funded by TECO and a grant from the Florida High Tech Corridor, gives USF researchers and TECO a chance to learn more about the technical, economic and environmental impacts of using smart grid technologies to connect consumer solar array systems to the regional electrical grid.

Harnessing Solar Power

The second part of the project involves creating an interactive learning center which will give the zoo's estimated 1.1 million annual visitors a chance to gain a deeper understanding of potential uses for renewable energy sources.

Craig Pugh, the zoo's acting CEO, is enthused about the project's potential.

"When it comes to energy, there is a lot we don't know," Pugh says. "This is a step toward something more technologically advanced for clean energy. It's a training opportunity, and it is an inquiry, and it is very much a creative process."

The project is a real-world example of what can be done by harnessing solar power.

 "It's hugely impactful," Pugh notes, to be able to point to Skyfari and say, "the ride is run by the sun."

Completing the solar array has required a considerable amount of coordination between the zoo, TECO, USF and the contractor. The work had to be done in a way that minimized disruptions to the animals, as well as preserving a quality visit for zoo guests, Pugh says.
While the PV cells atop the shade structure are stationery, the ones on top of the elephant night house are mounted to frames with adjustable legs – so they can be moved to capture the maximum amount of sunlight at different times of the year, says Eric Mayers, a superintendent for Friedrich Watkins Company, the general contractor.

The solar array portion of the project was being wrapped up a few days before Christmas, and the learning center – based partially on design ideas from students at USF's School of Architecture and Community Design -- is expected to be constructed in coming months. The center is envisioned as a portable kiosk, with interactive features, that can be stationed in different parts of the park.

From a practical standpoint, TECO hopes the zoo's example will inspire individuals and businesses to tap into solar power to generate electricity.

"We want to encourage customers to install their own solar on their homes," says Shelly Aubuchon, renewable energy program manager for TECO.  "This brings our peak load demands down in the middle of the day."

Reducing Reliance

Solar power is just one form of renewable energy that national leaders have touted as a way to reduce the United States' reliance on foreign oil.

By developing smart grids, the country can maximize the efficiency and reliability of the power system, says Alexander Domijan, director of USF's Power Center for Utility Explorations.

Smart grids are designed to deliver electrical power where it is needed, but also to accommodate a reverse flow of power from individual homes or businesses that produce energy, from solar panels, wind power or through other methods.

As it stands now, the electric grid system is designed to send – not receive -- power, says Domijan, who has spent more than two decades in the quest to create a more flexible, reliable, intelligent, electric energy delivery system, including using renewable, nuclear and fossil fuels.

A smart grid uses bi-directional electric meters to allow power to flow into and out of the power grid, Domijan explains. The goal is to supply power where it is needed, from the closest source of generation, rather than relying solely on power plants at a distance.

Improving reliability is another goal, Domijan says.

 "The philosophy of how to put the network together has to be different," he says. "It may become, instead of your arm reaching out, it might be more of a network – so you can make things more reliable, so you can reroute energy in different ways."

Creating Smart Grids

Smart grids allow consumers to manage their energy consumption throughout the day, conserving during peak power demand hours to reduce costs.

Tapping into power generated by various sources is important, Domijan says. But there are limitations.

 "You're putting the system at the mercy of the elements,'' Domijan says. " Clouds could come around and cover it up. Wind might not blow. People might want to use more energy themselves."

Creating effective smart grids is complicated, Domijan says. But, in the end, it will result in cleaner, more reliable energy and a reduced dependence on foreign oil.

In addition to their project  at the zoo, USF researchers also are involved in a three-year, $15 million project with Progress Energy Florida to incorporate alternative energy sources into a neighborhood serving 5,000 customers on the west side of St. Petersburg and in St. Pete Beach.

The project is designed to be more reliable and more efficient while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating a power supply that adapts better to customer demands.

The project, chosen from among 140 applications, is funded by a collaboration between the Florida Energy & Climate Commission, Progress Energy, Publix and HD Supply.

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in South Seminole Heights. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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