Millions of visitors go to the Cincinnati Zoo every year, but the newest attraction isn’t the new baby giraffe — it’s a solar panel. More accurately, over 6,000 solar panels installed over the zoo’s parking lot, spanning an area the size of four football fields. The sheer size of the arrays is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as their price tag: absolutely nothing.
The Cincinnati Zoo is the latest solar leasing success story, an innovative program that matches up investors with property owners who want to install solar but may not be able to afford the up-front costs. energyNOW! correspondent Patty Kim visited the zoo and SunRun, a San Francisco-based start-up to learn how solar leasing is generating power for pennies. The full segment is available below:
While the new solar array has made the Cincinnati Zoo one of America’s greenest, it’s also making a lot of financial sense. The panels produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity, about 20 percent of the zoo’s total energy needs, and on extremely sunny days, the zoo doesn’t draw any power from the grid. “On a day like today, every single building in our zoo is off the grid,” said Mark Fisher, senior director, Cincinnati Zoo. “When I got my first energy bill, I started reading down and it was zero.”
The $11 million project was financed through a complex web of private investors, federal tax credits, and Ohio’s alternative energy incentives. The zoo pays a locked-in rate of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour to the solar panel owners, roughly what it would have paid the local utility. Over time, however, the zoo could save millions as electricity prices rise. “This is the future,” says Steve Melink, who runs the Melink Corporation, an Ohio firm that designed, owns, and operates the array.
Solar leasing isn’t just for large landowners – homeowners can also take advantage of the financing model to put solar panels on their roof for next to nothing. But in order to work for homeowners, the process must be affordable and simple to understand. “We know for consumer to adopt solar in the mainstream, it can’t be hard and it can’t be more expensive,” said Lynn Jurich, SunRun cofounder. SunRun is one of the largest providers of residential solar in the country, with 11,000 homeowners signed up, and they hope to hit 22,000 households by 2012.
Ultimately, solar leasing proponents hope that as more and more people see installed solar panels, more people will warm to the idea of putting solar on their own homes. “1.3 million people a year park under this array, and when they come in the zoo, they’re like, ‘Wow – what is that?” said Fisher. “We can say this project, literally this project, has a direct relationship to motivating other folks, and that would be pretty cool.”
Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy public relations company based in Washington, D.C.