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Letting the Sun Shine In

Zoo installs largest publicly accessible, urban solar array

By Chris Charlson · February 2nd, 2011 · News

Lions, tigers and bears ... and energy?

The Cincinnati’s Zoo’s latest pet project won’t be housed behind glass or enclosed in habitats; instead, it will be openly displayed outside the facility for all to see.

Developed, designed, owned and operated by the Melink Corp., the $11 million Melink Solar Canopy will provide 20 percent of the Zoo’s energy needs. The project will be the largest publicly accessible urban solar array in the nation and will occupy the Zoo’s Vine Street parking lot. The project is expected to be completed by April.

Already under construction, the 1.5-megawatt system with 6,400 panels will be mounted on canopies covering most of the Vine Street parking lot says Mark Fisher, senior director of facilities, planning and sustainability at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The multiple structures will provide shade for 800 to 1,000 spaces at the Zoo’s main entrance, adding 22 spaces to the lot’s former design. Besides falling in line with the Zoo’s vision of conservation, adventure and education, the solar-produced energy will bring the facility an estimated $150,000 in savings per year he says. The project will even bode well for the local economy as all facets from manufacturing to installation will be provided by local companies or other manufacturers in the United States, he says.

“So, it’s 100 percent of all the contractors, the sub-contractors, the electricians, the steel guys, the engineers, the architects, 100 percent Cincinnati,” Fisher says. “Even the solar panels are manufactured by a German company out of Oregon.”

To answer critics who accuse the Zoo of squandering tax-levy dollars, Fisher notes the Zoo’s zero-dollar investment in the project.

Eco-friendly, longtime supporter PNC Bank came on board as the primary financier, Fisher says. The rest of the funding came in the form of New Market Tax Credits from New Jersey-based National Development Council and Cincinnati-based Uptown Consortium.

The system itself will be owned and operated by Melink Corp. with locked-in, competitive power rates for the next seven years. At the seven-year mark, the Zoo has the option of buying the system at a dramatically reduced price, Fisher says.

“The developer is making money, the bank is making money, businesses are getting their taxes reduced, the Zoo is going to be long-term saving money — and if we want to buy this thing down the road, we have the option and it will make perfect financial sense,” he says.

As owner and operator, Steve Melink, president of Melink Corp., says the company never would have approached a project of this magnitude without the complete commitment and forward thinking of the Cincinnati Zoo. Located in Milford, the company strives to bring clean energy use to fruition around the United States, he says.

To see what can be accomplished, he says look no further than the company’s own net zero energy building, which is effectively self-sustaining. The world converting to clean energy is inevitable, Melink adds, it just remains to be seen whether Ohio wants to be a leader or a follower in the transformation. He hopes these types of projects will educate residents on the importance of weening ourselves from wasteful habits. He points to the disturbing and now familiar statistic that the United States uses 25 percent of the world’s energy despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population.

“Cincinnati needs a high-profile renewable energy installation,” Melink says. “There’s so much going on across the country and even in Ohio — Cincinnati is almost agnostic about what is ‘renewable energy’ and what is ‘solar power.’ This will make a big impact in educating our community; that was another thing that inspired us to really ante up and make this project work.”

Besides the current commercial project with the Zoo, Melink says their photovoltaics (or solar power) division is working on affordable plug-and-play solar panels for consumer use. While residents might be challenged to remember two days of consecutive sunshine in the last month, Melink says Ohio receives more solar radiation than Germany, the world’s largest market for photovoltaics. People need to rethink the notion that solar energy only exists in “sunshine states,” he adds.

Investing in a greener tomorrow seemed like an obvious choice, says Beth Robinson, Uptown Consortium president and CEO. The nonprofit business committed $5.2 million in New Market Tax Credits to the project, a departure from its normal strategy of investing in business districts. The joint solar project not only brings attention to green initiatives, but also contributes to the community in other ways including a total of 10 Cincinnati State Technical & Community College scholarships being awarded to uptown residents in the solar energy discipline, she adds.

The uptown area is comprised of several neighborhoods: Avondale, Corryville, Clifton Heights, University Heights, Fairview, Clifton and Mount Auburn. Robison explains the initial three scholarships will be awarded in February, with another being awarded annually for seven years.

“We like to see the community benefit over and above the project itself,” she says. “The scholarship recipients will go through this program and once they have their certificate, they’ll actually be working on the project themselves. This will help the students because they’ll be skilled so they can get jobs in this industry.”

Once enrolled, the photovoltaic energy course entails 40 hours of classroom study and 16 hours of actual assembly, says Cincinnati State spokesman Robert White. Based out of the Workforce Development Center in Evendale, the program currently boasts a number of qualified working tradespeople sponsored by their companies to prepare them for the evolving market. The college will launch a separate course for thermal solar installations in the near future, White says.

Its commitment to renewable energy and conservation can be seen throughout the campus, especially in parking lots where rain gardens and storm-water reclamation systems have been installed. White jokingly refers to the college’s competition with the Zoo on conservation.

“I have to admit I’m kind of jealous,” he says. “Someone else is building a cooler parking lot.”



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