NRG pushes solar to keep Zoo moving

In a demonstration of solar power’s ability to do “real work,” NRG Energy on Thursday completed a transformation at the Houston Zoo that will use the sun’s rays to fuel 30 vehicles.

That means the zoo won’t have to pay for electricity to help workers move feed, supplies and even some animals around the park.

“This is an incredible opportunity to show solar power to a huge number of people coming through the zoo so that they can see that solar power is real and its functional,” said David Knox, a spokesman for NRG, which owns the Reliant Energy, Houston’s largest electricity retailer. “This is not something that’s a futuristic type thing. This is something that’s doing real work.”

NRG volunteers helped to install panels Thursday on 18 electric carts at the zoo. The company donated the $60,000 to convert the vehicles and $50,000 for previous work on the  zoo’s other 12 carts .

NRG, based in Princeton, N.J. with  5,000 employees in Houston, has been aggressive in promoting and installing solar systems as viable power solutions.

The solar panels that power the zoo’s 30 vehicles collectively generate  7.2 kilowatts, enough to power about four Texas homes in normal conditions.

But  solar-powered carts offer  more benefit than just the electricity bill savings, said Peter Riger, vice president of conservation for the Houston Zoo. The added value is convenience, he said.

“They can last 10 to 12 hours and because they’re out in the sun, they’re charging all the time,” Riger said.

That slow  charge  throughout the day provides longer battery life than  regular charging with  a surge of power from an electric plug, said Kendrick Hickens, the zoo’s master mechanic.

Zoo workers still do plug the cars in about once a week, on average, he said. But that is far less plug-in charging than was required without solar panels, Hickens said.

Knox noted that the  solar power also will come in handy when grid power is out.

“If you have a post-hurricane type thing, whether you have a day or a week (without electricity) these carts are going to continue to be a resource that they can use to make sure that their responsibilities to transport food or supplies to the animals are kept,” Knox said.

More than the energy benefits, the carts will showcase to zoo visitors the possibilities of solar energy in cutting damage to the environment, Riger said.

Solar power generation does not produce greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are small things you can do to make a difference and a lot of small things add up,” Riger said.