At the Oregon Zoo in Portland, construction has commenced on a new renewable energy system that will enable the venerable institution to slash heating-related expenditures and greenhouse gas emissions while also keeping two species, both endangered and both with very specific climate requirements, comfortable. While commendable, the Oregon Zoo’s new sustainability initiative also highlights the staggering artificiality of contemporary zoos, no matter how naturalistic in design they might be.

The new system consists of a geothermal loop — the zoo refers to it as a “slinky” — buried 12 feet underground and running between the polar bears’ grotto and Forrest Hall, the massive heated indoor section of a much-anticipated Asian elephant exhibit that’s due to open next year.

Yep, the polar bears will be helping to keep the pachyderms nice and warm in their new digs.

While looped geothermal heat pump systems are nothing new, this is the first time that we’ve seen it applied to two contrasting zoo habitats. Here's how it will operate in a nutshell:

The cooling system used to keep the polar bears’ pool and habitat appropriately chilly emits heat. Instead of allowing the waste heat to be expelled into the environment, it  will be captured and transferred through the earth-insulated underground coiled pipes over to the new home of Packy, Rama, Rose-Tu, and the rest of the artistically inclined gang. Simple enough.

Jim Mitchell, Oregon Zoo’s construction manager, describes the habitat-to-habitat geothermal heat exchange system as operating much like an ordinary refrigerator: “The condenser that cools the coils in your refrigerator produces heat, which is expelled away from the coils with a fan. Our system has just added another step: capturing that heat for use elsewhere rather than blowing it all away."

Infographic: Oregon Zoo

Thanks to the geothermal loop and other renewable energy systems including rooftop solar panels,  anticipated energy requirements at the new $53 million Elephant Lands exhibit will be slashed in half; related greenhouse gas emissions are expected to be reduced by an impressive 40 percent. Mitchell adds: "Gradually, we may eliminate the need for fossil fuels at the majority of buildings and exhibits at the zoo.”

Founded in 1888, the Oregon Zoo is the oldest North American zoo located west of the Mississippi and in recent years has emerged as a leader in the realm of zoo sustainability (this is Portland, after all). Notable existing green features at the zoo include the LEED Gold-certified Veterinary Medical Center (VMC) facility; an innovative, water-saving reverse osmosis/sand filtration installed in the Penguintarium in 2011; herbivore manure composting; and various other conservation and recycling initiatives in place for staff and visitors.

As for the under-construction geothermal loop system, the Oregon Zoo’s twin sibling polar bear residents, Conrad and Tasul, were unavailable for comment. 

Via [The Oregonian]

Related on MNN:

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.