TAMPA — The skies were overcast, but officials Monday predicted a sunny future for solar energy at Lowry Park Zoo and beyond.
By December, two sets of solar panels in or near the elephant exhibit are expected to generate 15 kilowatts for the zoo. The $800,000 project is a joint effort of the zoo, Tampa Electric and the University of South Florida.
"My understanding is that this will solar-power the sky rides, so I sure hope it works," Mayor Pam Iorio joked.
Not only will it work, advocates say, but it should help usher in the increased use of solar energy in two ways.
First, it will demonstrate the uses of solar power to the zoo's 1.1 million visitors a year, officials say. That will show the public what steps their communities can take to foster the generation of renewable energy.
"To choose wisely, we need to understand what the alternatives are," Lowry Park Zoo acting director Craig Pugh said.
Also, it will help Tampa Electric and USF's Power Center for Utility Explorations figure out the most efficient ways to integrate electricity generated by small, scattered alternative sources — like the photovoltaic cells destined for the zoo — into the regional power grid.
Such projects are the vanguard of a fundamental transformation of the power system, creating a grid that is flexible, reliable, intelligent and sustainable, said Alexander Domijan, director of the Power Center for Utility Explorations. They also will create jobs and business opportunities, he said.
This is not USF's only venture into developing new power systems. The Florida Energy and Climate Commission picked a collaboration between USF's Power Center and Progress Energy Florida for a three-year, $15 million project to build a "smart grid" serving at least 5,000 customers on the west side of St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.
Selected from 140 applicants, the project is expected to channel electricity generated with solar and biodiesel technology into the neighborhoods' power supply. It also seeks to create a more efficient and reliable system that will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt to changing energy demands.
For the project at the zoo, solar cells will be installed on top of a shade structure where elephants take refuge from the sun, as well as near the shelters at the rear of the elephant exhibit.
On sunny days, they are expected to generate enough electricity to run the zoo's Treetop Skyfari ride. But on days like Monday, when raindrops scattered the giraffes in the exhibit next to the project kickoff, the ride will draw power from the power-plant-driven electric grid.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.