As zebras watch, Detroit Zoo announces switch to wind energy

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Before an attentive audience of elected officials, reporters and zebras, the Detroit Zoo announced Thursday that it's embracing a renewable energy plan and will ultimately draw all of its electricity from Michigan wind parks.

The contract, part of DTE Energy's MIGreenPower program, will take effect in 2021. The wind parks, two in mid-Michigan's Isabella County and one in the Upper Peninsula's Delta County, are scheduled for completion in late 2020.

Two wildebeest and two Grevy's zebras watch before the press conference.

The latest step in what the Detroit Zoological Society refers to as its "Green Journey" was explained in a press conference at the zoo. Onlookers included some of the inspirations for what executive director and CEO Ron Kagan calls "our commitment to sustainability" — zebras from the enclosure behind the podium.

"Tents, chairs, a stage — it's in their DNA to notice change," said Scott Carter, the zoo's chief life science officer. "They absolutely were paying attention. Once they realize something isn't going to chase them, they move on."

Scott Carter, Detroit Zoological Society chief life sciences officer, announces the partnership with DTE. The zoo will now be powered by 100% renewable energy as they partner with DTE's MIGreenPower initiative.

The zoo's sustainability efforts already include projects as wide-ranging as offsetting its energy consumption with carbon credits, using solar/electric golf carts for transportation, and feeding animal waste and food scraps into an anaerobic digester to create biogas that partially powers its on-site veterinary hospital.

The digester repurposes a million pounds of poop each year, Carter said, all from herbivores.

"Carnivores are much more efficient digesters," he explained, and their droppings are more likely to contain pathogens that the machinery can't eliminate. "Herbivores leave a lot more energy behind, and that's energy we can use."

On a larger scale, Kagan said that joining MIGreenPower is "a major step forward for us, as our power needs significantly exceed what we can produce."

MIGreenPower is a voluntary program that helps institutions and individuals reduce their carbon footprint, said DTE's Brian Calka, while supporting the development of wind and solar energy projects.

Reticulated giraffes Jabari, left, a male, and Kivuli, a female, stand together in their habitat at the Detroit Zoo.

Others who have signed on for varying degrees of renewable energy use include Ford, General Motors, the University of Michigan and more than 8,300 residential and business customers. Ford, GM and UM will also begin drawing power from the new wind farms in 2021, while smaller consumers are already tapping into solar projects in Detroit, Lapeer and Huron County.

Calka, DTE's director of renewable solutions, said MIGreenPower enrollees see "a slight increase in their electric bill right now," about 1 to 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

"However, over time, that premium will reduce, and we think there could be a cost savings opportunity," he said. "To the extent we find ways to reduce energy consumption, the bill might remain constant or go down."

Renewable energy makes up 12.5% of every DTE customer's electricity. The zoo expects to eliminate 7,425 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually when it converts to wind power.

State Reps. Jim Ellison, D-Royal Oak, and Robert Wittenberg, D-Huntington Woods,  said the zoo's decision was important in ways that go beyond the boundaries of the park.

"It speaks to the whole concept of switching over to renewables," said Ellison, whose district includes the main entrance on Woodward. "The more big names that get out there, the more it helps publicize that's the path we're following."

Wittenberg, whose district essentially includes the animals, said it's important that "residential consumers realize they can get into this. It's the direction we're moving in. It's the direction we need to be moving in."

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