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Solar energy in America's National Parks: Solar panels were up and running back in 1995 (photo courtesy of NPS).

Clean Power

Solar Energy In 1995: US National Parks Led The Way

America’s national parks are front and center in wildlife conservation and renewable energy, too.

Shark Week has come and gone, now get ready for Park Week. National Geographic is kicking off its first annual America’s National Parks Week event from August 29 to September 2, which makes it a good time to check in on the National Parks Service’s renewable energy initiatives. Did you know NPS was doing solar energy back in the 1990s?

America’s National Parks

Before we get to the solar energy angle, let’s take a quick look at National Geographic’s new America’s National Parks series, which is the kickoff event for a whole raft of programming for the first annual America’s National Parks Week. The first episode unspools on National Geographic TV Monday night and streaming on Disney+.

Executive Producer Anwar Mamon of Wildstar Films is described as “a tech nerd who loves finding inventive ways to use cameras and raise the bar of visual storytelling,” while drawing an emotional connection with wildlife and their places.

That approach came through in an interview Mamon gave to CleanTechnica earlier this month (following remarks lightly edited for clarity and flow).

Mamon: We are extremely lucky to do our jobs, and in the parks in particular, our teams really got to know the parks in all sorts of seasons. We got to know the animals as they transformed from baby to adults. What comes through in the series is a real intimacy and deeper insights into the public parks.

CleanTechnica: What was the biggest challenge of filming the series?

Mamon: All natural history series are about overcoming challenges. Wildlife never reads a script. You have to be prepared for anything, and put luck on your side by working with the experts.

Technology increasingly giving us the edge. It’s opening up different sides of the natural world that previously we would not be able to film.

For example, at Big Bend National Park we filmed Mexican long-nosed bats. They flock to the agave to feed on nectar at night, and only sporadically throughout the year. We used the latest night camera technology to capture them feeding, to see the amazing way they access the nectar and how the symbiotic relationship works.

CleanTechnica: Do you have a special park [in the series]?

Mamon: All of the parks are very special. All of them have something different to offer, and for an American they have different cultural implications.

The Grand Canyon is the closest I can get to a religious experience.  We were lucky enough to film First Lady Dr. Jill Biden there, for the PSA on free entry to the parks for military families. She had never been there before, and it was good to see her reaction.

Solar Energy & The Grand Canyon

That brings us around to the vanguard role of the National Parks Service in the solar energy field.

The NPS Visitor Center at Hans Flat in Utah is the first instance we could find of solar energy in the National Parks. The rooftop PV array kicked into gear in November 1995.

Of the parks featured in the National Geographic series, the Grand Canyon was also front and center among early federal solar energy projects. On May 12, 2009 the National Parks Service held a public event to commemorate a new rooftop PV system at the NPS Visitor’s Center.

The amount of solar energy produced by the array was tiny by today’s standards, but NPS had this to say about their impact:

“The panels will also provide a unique opportunity for Grand Canyon’s 4.5 million visitors each year to learn about this clean energy alternative. An exhibit inside the Visitor Center and signage next to the platform-mounted panels will inform visitors about the mechanics of solar energy and about how Arizona’s abundant sunshine could make the state the solar capital of the world.”

They certainly hit the nail on the head. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Arizona currently ranks an impressive 5th among the 50 states in installed solar capacity, and the state is closing in on the 10% mark for the percentage of electricity generated from solar energy.

More Solar Energy For More National Parks

Other parks featured in the America’s National Parks series also hopped on the solar energy bandwagon back during the early years of the solar energy revolution.

Badlands National Park, for example, got a hybrid solar energy and wind energy system in 2010, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Lakota Times cited park superintendent Eric Brunnemann, who said, “this is an exciting project that fully supports the National Park Service’s efforts to reduce green house gasses by investing in new technologies.”

In 2011 NPS launched what was then its biggest solar energy project at Yosemite National Park, a 672 kilowatt array of 2,800 solar panels. “The park estimates saving approximately $50,000 per year on electricity purchased off the grid and is expecting to receive a $700,000 energy rebate from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) over the next five years,” NPS explained.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park stands out for a soup-to-nuts sustainability program that includes water conservation and waste management, recognized the the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 with a Regional Overall Achievement award in the Federal Green Challenge. The park’s Visitor Emergency Operation opened in 2011 with LEED Platinum certification by the US Green Building Council and a PV array.

National Parks & Military Families

In case you’re wondering why Mamon’s crew was filming Dr. Jill Biden at the Grand Canyon, that’s because Dr. Biden introduces each part of the new series with a message about each park.

Considering Dr. Biden’s advocacy for military families, it’s also a good opportunity to remind everyone that the National Park Service offers free lifetime access to Gold Star families, military veterans, and current members of the armed services and their dependents, covering more than 2,000 federal recreation areas including wildlife refuges and forests well as national parks.

The military connection is of interest from a clean tech angle because the US Department of Defense played a key role in supporting early utility-scale developments in the the solar energy industry, in addition to promoting portable and transportable PV arrays along with many other decarbonization initiatives and foundational research, too.

The DOD also broadcast a clear warning about climate change as a leading threat to national security back in 2010. The political winds were not behind them back then, but resistance is breaking down as the future impacts of climate change become today’s reality.

The newly passed federal Inflation Reduction Act provides the National Parks Service with $1 billion in climate adaptation funding, which is a good start.

Also for the record, the National Park Service was established in 1916 and celebrates its birthday on August 25 each year. They also hold the official NPS Week every year in April, so that’s something to look forward to after America’s National Parks Week has come and gone.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar energy at Bryce Canyon National Park (credit: NPS Photo).

 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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