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Solar project at SD Zoo to power cars, serve as clean-energy blueprint

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Just days ago, a groundbreaking was celebrated at the San Diego Zoo that will literally energize a portion of its parking lot.

It’s been named the Smart City San Diego Solar-to-EV project, and it will bring to the zoo something not seen anywhere else in the San Diego area: a solar power generating system designed not only to pump electricity to electric vehicles needing a charge, but also into the region’s energy supply.

The roughly 102-kilowatt solar panel system is being built into a series of carports in the southeast corner of the zoo’s parking lot, at the corner of Park Boulevard and Zoo Place, and will provide energy to electric vehicle chargers below. At a cost of around $1.2 million, it’s the latest project to come out of the Smart City San Diego initiative, a collaboration combining the resources of the city of San Diego, San Diego Gas & Electric, General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), the nonprofit CleanTech San Diego and the University of California, San Diego to move the San Diego region beyond the current boundaries of sustainability.

The collaborative has aimed to drive existing energy programs forward, identify new opportunities and embrace additional collaborators in an effort to improve the region’s energy independence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make San Diego a clean energy leader.

With this latest project, the San Diego Zoo became Smart City San Diego’s newest partner.

"By providing a sustainable energy mechanism at a well-known destination like the zoo, we are not only raising awareness for this technology, but we are making this option available to guests that we host from all over the world,” said John Dunlap, director of the San Diego Zoo, in a recent statement.

The project will be owned and managed by SDG&E’s Sustainable Communities Program, which promotes local solar installations and green building design and construction throughout the region. The four charging stations powered by the solar panels are part of The EV Project, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded initiative to deliver electric vehicle charging stations in various cities.

Those involved with the project say it will serve as a new energy infrastructure blueprint for the region, with the hope that its design will be replicated elsewhere.

“Picture 10 carports that cover 10 or 15 cars each,” said Jay Miller, vice president of operations at Independent Energy Solutions, the contractor hired to perform the build and installation. “We call them solar trees. And then under those 10 solar trees, we’re going to have four electric vehicle chargers, and one that’s going to go over in the [disabled persons] parking area.”

The site is also being designed with provisions for the additional installation of chargers in the future.

A series of solar-capable carports that can charge an electric car might not seem as innovative today as in the past, but Miller said this project, and the implications it provides for the region’s future, are more significant than its charging capability.

What differentiates the project from other projects IES has done — the company has completed numerous solar carport builds, including the $2.37 million, 356-kilowatt system atop carports in San Diego State University’s Parking Structure 1 last year — is the integration of a 100-kilowatt energy storage system capable of feeding energy back into the grid.

Miller said that sets the project aside from any undertaken by SDG&E throughout its service territory. The store of energy will come from a bank of batteries housed in a concrete enclosure, connected to a bi-directional inverter that integrates the system into the electrical grid.

So the photovoltaic panels will serve their function in charging vehicles connected to the system during the day, but when no cars are parked there during the day, or when there are only a couple, the panels will work to charge the batteries. When that bank of batteries is fully charged, Miller said, it will serve to feed stored solar energy back into the grid, reversing the energy flow with the bi-directional inverter.

“And then throughout the evening and the nighttime, if there’s a car that wants to be charged up, it would charge off of the batteries,” Miller said.

The batteries will be supplied by Korean battery manufacturer Kokam Co., while the inverters will be from New Jersey-based Princeton Power Systems.

Ever since solar energy proponents began pushing for the technology to become mainstream, finding practical ways to store the intermittent energy has been a key goal. Miller said the employment of such a commercial battery storage system is cutting-edge, but added that what’s going to be built at the zoo is more of a test case than an experiment.

“The whole concept here is that SDG&E is wanting to put this — call it a little microcosm — in place here to see how all these things interact with each other and with the grid,” Miller said.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has through the years proved to be an advocate of San Diego’s potential as a leader in embracing solar energy technology, introduced the Smart City San Diego initiative to the city in January 2011, while standing beside a row of electric vehicles plugged into GE's WattStation electric vehicle chargers at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

An election that will leave Sanders as the outgoing mayor will take place this fall, but Miller said the goal is to have the project at the zoo complete in time for the mayor’s last days in office.

“We’re shooting for a Thanksgiving completion so that the week after, before Mayor Sanders leaves office, we’ll do the ribbon-cutting,” Miller said. “He’s been a real proponent of the clean city, clean tech. Before he officially leaves office, we want this to be one of the last things he does as mayor.”

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