BY JIM KNIPPENBERG | JKNIPPENBERG@ENQUIRER.COM
The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has launched a project that will turn one of its most abundant natural resources into energy.
There are no specific numbers on how much it will save the zoo in energy costs, but the team working on the project says it will be tens of thousands of dollars annually at the outset and more as the program progresses.
In about two years, when the plan is fully implemented, the elephant and giraffe houses will be heated, cooled and lit by animal waste converted to energy. At least two other zoos – Denver and Dallas – are in the beginning stages of similar projects.
Poo Power, as the senior staff is calling it, is one phase of Go Green, a multi-tiered initiative that informally began in 2005 with a water-saving project and construction of the Harold C. Schott Education Center aimed at making Cincinnati one of the country’s greenest zoos, said Mark Fisher, senior director of facilities and planning.
“From now on, every project we undertake will be with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in mind,” Fisher said. “This is a long-term, lifetime commitment we’re undertaking because of the tremendous cost advantage, but more than that because it’s the right thing to do for the planet.”
Fisher, 32, a civil engineer, has been at the zoo two years. The Mason resident arrived after 11 years with Turner Construction, “with half of the years spent here, working on the elephant house, polar bear exhibit, Children’s Gift Shop, Safari Camp and smaller projects.”
“But this is the biggest and most ambitious one we’ve undertaken. We realize it’s something that will cost us more on the front end but will pay huge dividends as time goes by. Some of the changes we’ve made or are making will pay for themselves in as little as a year.”
LEED is a national program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to promote environmentally sustainable construction and energy use (www.usgbc.org/LEED). It awards points based on how well a site meets certain prerequisites, then rates a building as Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. The zoo’s education center, certified last September, is the only Silver Certified building in Cincinnati and two points short of Gold.
The extraction of power from “poo” – biomass in more scientific terms – is a project is in its infancy. Step one is a $15,000-$20,000 feasibility study, co-funded by Duke Energy and the Ohio Department of Development, and already under way to determine how much energy the elephant waste will generate.
Hard numbers are due back in the spring, but Fisher has what he thinks are accurate estimates.
“We have four elephants weighing more than 37,000 pounds and they produce 800 pounds of waste a day. That’s at least 20 kw (kilowatts) and enough to heat the elephant house and maybe giraffe house too (on a daily basis). Right now, we pay Rumpke to haul the waste away, so there’s another savings and another plus because we’re diverting it from a landfill.
“Other animals here don’t produce like elephants, but the study will look at the rhino, giraffe, other hoofed stock and even tiger output for conversion rates.”
Zoo visitors will contribute to Poo Power as well – but only via meals they don’t finish. As the project progresses, separate bins for food waste – half eaten burgers, hot dogs, pizza crusts – will be installed so dinner remnants can go through the energy conversion process. Likewise, the horticultural department will contribute with clippings and other garden waste.
“The biomass technology is out there and functional, but it has never been done on a small scale,” Fisher said. “Huge factory farms that produce tons of waste a day use it, but we don’t have tons to work with, so one of our first jobs after the study will be to design and build a small unit for smaller-scale facilities.
“The unit we design will have implications for the rest of the country in other zoos, smaller horse farms and cattle ranches.’’
Poo Power cost projections won’t be available until the feasibility study is completed, but the bulk will be private money.
“I’m confident we can fund it as we move along,” Fisher said. “Duke and the State of Ohio are already behind the project.”
Jim Lefeld, Duke’s director of renewable energy, said Poo Power is just a start.
“This project will provide Duke Energy the opportunity to further investigate the feasibility of small-scale waste-to-energy applications,’’ he said. “And it compliments current work Duke is doing in rural areas of its service territory to develop economic solutions to resolve livestock waste management problems.
“We have an active livestock industry in Indiana and North Carolina, and this project has implications for them, especially in the area of waste management problems. But there are also zoos all over the three states where the project has applications.”
When the time comes to fully implement, the zoo will use either a gasification unit or an anaerobic digester. Both do the same thing – convert methane gas into energy – but a digester does it with micro organisms while gasification uses heat. Whichever the zoo uses, the unit will be positioned on a main loop where visitors can see it and read signage about what’s happening.
“At the end of the day,’’ Fisher said, “the most important thing is that this is the right thing to do.”