The Careful Journey of Bryce Canyon National Park to Zero Net Energy

By: Adam Plesniak, Principle, PD3 Consulting Board Member, ASES

To many Americans, our US National Parks system represents far more than our collective “backyard.” To simplify the National Parks as a mere aggregation of public space is truly missing the point. To many citizens, the National Parks stand as one of the best examples of governmental purpose and authority on preservation, defense and presentation of the wonders of this land as nature intended. In my opinion and that of many others, the National Parks are spiritual sites no less important than any cathedral ever built, past, present or future.

This is why altering land in a National Park for any reason, whether to add new trails, new services, or, as discussed in this article, self-generation of electricity from solar panels should be considered less an opportunity for shiny new things and more a responsibility to what the land already represents. With the National Parks Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, humility and recognition of stewardship were of primary importance when leaders at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah decided they wanted to take their Visitors Center and main operational offices to zero net energy (ZNE) before the 2016 Centennial celebrations. With over 1.5 million visitors to the park every year, they wanted a solar power solution designed to educate, inspire and above all, be the gold standard for ecologically responsible solar.

The Bryce Canyon team first educated themselves on the choices in solar power products and organized a competitive bid process. They decided to install high efficiency solar panels made in the USA using dual axis solar trackers. The use of pedestal-mounted dual axis trackers allowed for a minimal permanent interface to the ground and no site grading while still meeting energy generation needs. Dual axis trackers also gave the panels a kinetic “sunflower” effect, a feature meant to generate the same tingle you get when spotting a pronghorn sheep through a thick of trees. “Did you see it move? I think it moved!,” a curious visitor might exclaim. As an industry note, the use of dual axis trackers in solar projects has been growing as lower-cost quality trackers have come onto the market in the last several years. Because of the additional energy generated by tracking and the reduction in tracker costs, installed dual axis tracked solar can often beat rooftop solar on cost of energy generation, making it a great alternative to rooftop systems.

The panels for the installation were manufactured in California starting in late 2014 by USbased PV solutions provider Arzon Solar. Installation of the project started in Spring 2015 after the winter thaw. The Visitors Center started its first day of Zero Net Energy existence when commissioning was completed with the flip of a switch on a crisp fall day in October, all without impacting the sensitive park ecology or the historical integrity of the building.

Although Bryce Canyon is still in its winter tourist slumber, 2016 is shaping up to be a huge year for the park. The summer busy season is approaching fast, and 2016 Centennial events are drawing more attention to National Parks this year than ever before. Positive opinions on the visual and educational impact of the arrays at the park have already started to trickle in from bloggers and reviewers on travel sites such as TripAdvisor.

Although I recommend you make plans to go and see the installation for yourself as the park moves closer to spring, a virtual tour is easy if you search YouTube for the channel WeRtheBryceCanyonSolarArray. There you will find two very instructional 10-minute virtual tours featuring Ranger Kevin Poe as well as time-lapse videos of the arrays in action.

As the park leadership is eager to spread the word about the success of this project in hopes of encouraging more public and private solar installations around the world, please share this story and the virtual tour with your friends. And do make sure on your next trip to southern Utah to take a nice long detour to stop and say “Hello!” to the brand new solar arrays at Bryce Canyon National Park!