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Q&A: Thane Maynard on the Cincinnati Zoo's quest to become the greenest in America

Thane Maynard, Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
Thane Maynard, Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
The Cincinnati Zoo is near the end of an ambitious, five-year plan to drastically cut its carbon footprint by investing in energy efficiency. It was the first in the country with multiple LEED certified buildings (now at four), and the first to publically commit to meeting LEED standards in all new buildings. The Zoo has invested in solar energy generation, storm water control and electricity efficiency with an eye on saving money and preserving resources. This year Gov. Ted Strickland proclaimed it the Greenest Zoo in America on Earth Day, and U.S. Department of Energy/Alliance to Save Energy gave the zoo its  "Super Nova" Award for Energy Efficiency. Maynard spole to hiVelocity about the Zoo's Green vision and philosophy, current accomplishments and plans for the future.

What is the vision for the Zoo's green initiatives and how did that vision get started?

First of all we are very proud and committed to being the greenest zoo in America. The idea really came out of economics. We receive less tax support than any zoo in Ohio, and definitely less than top zoos in America. So we asked how can we thrive, doing more with less? So we looked at water use, electricity, natural gas and utilities. We're on 79 acres, we have thousands of animals and lots of heated buildings for those animals. We're also in the public education business, so that puts us in a perfect position to show how these technologies can work in our everyday lives. A decade ago people though LEED certification or geothermal or solar energy all sounded expensive. People would say 'Gee that sounds nice, but we're not Portland, we're Cincinnati, Ohio. So now I say If this stuff can work in Cincinnati, it can work anywhere… We brought in civil engineer Mark Fisher ,who was working for Turner Construction when we were doing some of our (LEED) building projects. He was such a good fit for what we were trying to do that we brought him on.

How is what Cincinnati doing compare to what's happening at other zoos across the country? Is Cincinnati at the forefront in going green?

The Zoo is renowned for a number of things. We're known for the botanical gardens, we're known for our education center. But one of the things we are increasingly well-known for in the U.S. and other countries is our green initiatives. We've had people from many other zoos come here and ask us about what we're doing. We had someone from the San Diego Zoo ask 'how are you doing this in Ohio? We're not doing this and we're in Southern California.' Like I said, this was all really all driven by economics. Any of your older facilities you can immediately save money by upgrading the HVAC, the lighting systems. You can have a better warmer, cooler or better lighted facility, and you can do it for less money.

How are all your improvements being funded? And would you do anything that was environmentally responsible, but actually cost money?

Almost all of the zoo's budget is raised privately, however for some of the work we have gotten state and federal funding. Principally everything has been privately funded. We have not yet found any green initiative that we can do that won't have a payback. We have an initiative to save water. For our initial push we are pushing to use 50 percent less water than we used four years ago. There was some expense for that like installing our pervious pavers and catch basins. And now our water bill is $600,000 less than it was five years ago. There are some other things that have a longer payback window -- solar panels for instance. We are not the Mojave Desert; some days when it's really sunny we have a lot of generation. Solar panels don't have a two-year payout; they have closer to a seven- or eight-year payout.

Is this good PR for the Zoo, do people perceive the Zoo more favorably because of what you're doing?

I do think it is good PR. It shows we are not just talking about conservation or protection of the Congo, we are also talking about things you can do in your business and home to conserve the environment. If you are trying to reduce your carbon footprint, I think you can show you can walk the walk and realize tremendous savings. In the first 10 years you're going to have more savings, but less in the second decade. I told you about having $600,000 in savings in water. That's tremendous to our success. We have a $26 million annual budget that will stay about the same as expenses grow. So in essence, if we have to come up with an extra $1 million, saving $600,000 in water costs is better than making other cuts.

What are some plans of your plans for the future?

For years our refuse and animal poop has gone to "Mount Rumpke" (Rumpke landfill in Hamilton County). Now we're working with Marvin's Organic Gardens and Rumpke, which is doing the delivery, and putting that refuse in a bigger dumpster once a week to be composted. Over time it will turn back into soil that we can use. It will cost us the same, so we thought Why not do it? We are also working on a grant for a biogasification system where you can literally take methane gas and use it to heat buildings… We are working on a grant for a study to see if this is doable. We are also looking to do more with solar energy. We also are trying to improve how we measure (energy efficiency savings) and to want to report it out to visitors more easily.
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