This article was reprinted — with minor changes — from the December 3, 2001 issue of Public Power Weekly from the American Public Power Association.

Bigger than a Bread Box…

Fuel Cell at Omaha Zoo Helps Keep a Jungle Warm and Green

Leopards, monkeys and tropical birds living in the Lied Jungle in Omaha, Nebraska, will keep warm this winter thanks to a 200 kilowatt fuel cell power plant operated by the Omaha Public Power District.

Monkeys at the Lied Jungle
Monkeys at the Lied Jungle

The fuel cell is generating electricity for the Lied Jungle exhibit at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The small power plant also produces waste heat, which is used to water plants and keep the jungle warm, OPPD said. As part of a two-year agreement with the zoo, the utility owns, operates and maintains the unit, charging the zoo only for electricity consumed, said OPPD. The fuel cell began generating electricity August 10. "The zoo’s participation in OPPD’s fuel cell project is evidence of both organizations’ focus on the betterment of our local community and environment," said Jim Krist, account executive for OPPD.

OPPD purchased the $800,000 unit from International Fuel Cells, based in South Windsor, Connecticut. The fuel cell is 10 feet wide, 18 feet long, 10 feet high and weighs 40,000 pounds. The Department of Energy’s 2000 Climate Change Fuel Cell Program paid $200,000 of the project’s cost through a grant.

Rather than using combustion, fuel cells produce electricity chemically, usually by converting natural gas into hydrogen, then combining that with oxygen. Because there is no combustion, fuel cells are virtually emission-free.

Waterfall at the Lied Jungle
Waterfall at the Lied Jungle

The fuel cell replaces two 60-kilowatt cogeneration units that were providing power to the jungle exhibit. The exhibit was a good candidate for the project because of its constant high demand and its ability to use waste heat from the fuel cell to control the jungle’s temperature, the utility said. It also provides a visible location for fuel cell education, said Terry Johnson, project manager for OPPD.

The eight-story jungle includes a 60,000-square-foot rainforest with streams, pools and waterfalls, circulating 40,000 gallons of water, said OPPD. Bamboo, fig trees, orchids and other plant life make up the jungle, sharing the habitat with approximately 90 different species, including small-clawed otters, Indian fruit bats and pygmy hippos, the utility said.

"For the application we are using it for, the fuel cell is going to be fantastic," said Danny Morris, senior zoological curator at the zoo. "A byproduct of the fuel cell is heat. We can use this heat for warming the water for a number of pools in the Lied Jungle to specific temperatures. In addition, the 5,000 gallons of water we use to irrigate the plants every night needs to be heated. Although we still pay for the electricity, we’re coming out ahead on the heated water."

The jungle exhibit is named after Omaha businessman Ernst F. Lied. The Lied Foundation Trust donated $15 million to the exhibit, said a zoo spokesperson.

The zoo is also participating in OPPD’s standby generation program, which will provide the zoo with $57,600 annually in energy credits for load curtailment, Krist said. The program rewards large- and medium-sized customers for switching to standby generators to decrease load during peak times, relieving OPPD from the need to buy electricity when prices are high.

Each month, the customer receives $2 per kilowatt of standby generating capacity, said OPPD. If the customer runs a standby generator to reduce load, OPPD pays the customer an additional 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

"OPPD and the zoo have built a strong, mutually beneficial business relationship over the years," said Krist. "Our goal is to help Omaha’s world-renowned zoo grow and to help it become more energy-efficient in the process."

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