Solar Gardens

What do you get when you mix a solar array with a community garden? A solar garden! Solar gardens are solar arrays connected to the utility grid, from which members of the community can purchase a share of the electricity generated as a renewable energy credit. This program allows individuals who may not be able to easily install or purchase their own solar panels to get the same cost benefit that they could get with a personal solar power system. Additionally, solar gardens represent a great advancement in environmental sustainability because they create the opportunity for members of the local community to choose, invest in, and use renewable, clean energy. Plus, they provide a reuse option for brownfields because solar gardens can be installed on these otherwise unusable properties. Brownfields are land previously used for industrial purposes or some commercial uses. The land may be contaminated by low concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution, and has the potential to be reused once it is cleaned up.

Solar gardens first originated in Ellensburg, Washington, in 2006; however, the state of Colorado was the first state to “legalize” these gardens in 2010. While solar gardens are not necessarily “illegal,” they can be expensive, and so their operation requires regulation and incentives. Laws and taxes that “legalize” solar gardens help systemize connecting solar-generated power to the utility grid, regulate the size and location of the garden, and provide some of the funding needed for installation and operation. This legislation is not a federal requirement, but it helps ensure the success of these programs. Since solar garden legislation was put in place in Colorado, eight more states have instituted similar legislation demonstrating the positive progress of solar garden implementation: California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington, Utah and DC.

Solar Power in Concessions

Although solar gardens have yet to be used in national parks, every day concessioners are finding unique ways to harness solar power, and here are a few examples of how they are doing so:

  • Death Valley National Park: Death Valley Lodging Company has installed aboveground black tubing that is connected to their swimming pool. The pool water circulates through the black tubing, which is heated by the sun, and pumped back into the swimming pool, allowing for a solar heated pool.
  • Grand Teton National Park: Flagg Ranch installed solar panels on the tops of their golf carts to recharge cart batteries. Also, staff at Lower Saddle installed solar panels on top of climbing guide huts to power interior lights. Additionally, another concessioner, OARS, installed solar panels and utilized 100 percent solar power at two of its western outposts within the park. OARS plans to continue installing and utilizing more solar power units at its other operational facilities, as financially feasible.
  • Xanterra, Inc. has multiple concession facilities where solar power systems are in operation. Xanterra built two LEED-certified buildings with solar arrays that produce more than 7 million British thermal units of electricity at Yellowstone National Park Lodges. At Crater Lake Lodge, Xanterra installed 0.2-kilowatt remote solar photovoltaic panels generating 300 kilowatt hours per year. Xanterra also installed the largest solar photovoltaic system in the hospitality industry at Furnace Creek Resort.
  • Yellowstone General Stores reduced their carbon footprint by 168 tons of carbon dioxide by installing a solar thermal hot water system for its retail operations.
  • Hornblower Yachts, Inc., the concessioner that provides ferry services from the mainland to Alcatraz and Angel Islands at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, worked closely with the Coast Guard to create the first hybrid ferry in the United States. The ferry, known as the Hornblower Hybrid, runs on solar power, wind power, and low-emission diesel fuel.

While NPS concessioners are making great strides toward decreasing energy produced from fossil fuels and increasing renewable energy, solar gardens could eventually be an easier and more efficient way for both concessioners and parks to mutually benefit from a clean energy source. By coming together with state government and local utility providers, parks and their concessioners could jointly invest in solar gardens to not only generate renewable energy, but also generate a significant return on investment and, most importantly, help preserve our planet.