ThemeWorks’ Experience with Solar Energy
Across the globe in recent years, as many governments, businesses, institutions, and consumers alike have taken interest in sustainability, one energy source that’s received considerable attention is solar power. In the attractions industry, a few facilities like Wet ‘n’ Wild Hawaii have converted their energy usage entirely to solar energy (visit IAAPA.org/WetnWildSolar for the full article), while others have partially converted. But what is the long-term performance and reliability of such a system, and does it have any unanticipated benefits or drawbacks?
ThemeWorks Inc., located in High Springs, Florida, is a full-service design and fabrication company serving theme parks, zoos, aquariums, museums, casinos, restaurants, and movie studios. The company’s 54,000-square-foot headquarters creates scenery, artificial rockwork, sculptures, props, exhibits, and interactives.
In early 2013, ThemeWorks began operating a 100-kilowatt solar voltaic energy system newly installed by Solar Impact, a Florida vendor. The so-lar panels, wholly owned by ThemeWorks, cover approximately one-third of the 1.25-acre roof of the company’s building. The system can provide as much as two-thirds of ThemeWorks’ energy consumption.
At the time, R. Scott Gill, the company’s president, said ThemeWorks did not choose to install a system that provided 100% of its energy usage because electric utilities typically paid wholesale rates for any energy returned to their grid but charged retail rates for any power used from the grid. Due to that differential, the cost required for the additional equipment to provide all of ThemeWorks’ energy needs was not worthwhile.
Reflection After Almost a Decade in Use
Jump ahead nine years, and Gill has positive things to say about the transition.
“The system has performed almost exactly as predicted, remarkably so,” he says. “Actual production and expenses have tracked very closely to our projections.”
When the system was installed, it had a predicted return on investment (ROI) of 11 years. As to whether that appears to be happening, he reveals, “We financed the system, so that was built into the pro formas. Had we paid cash, we would have been at break-even in six years. As it was, we were at positive cash in the first year, and profits increase quickly once the loan is satisfied. The system was sized to provide two-thirds of our gross power needs to allow for some fluctuation in power use and ensure that we were realizing retail rates for the power generated, not wholesale. That has held true so far.”
But Gill goes on to say that as ThemeWorks has grown, it has added a number of large machines that have significant demands for power. So in hindsight, he states that they could have increased the solar power system size to accommodate growth, but this would have been speculative. “Interestingly, some of the additional power needed for the new machinery has been offset by investments in other facility improvements, such as LED lighting and a new, efficient compressed air system,” he says.
As for reliability and maintenance of the system, Gill says there have been few problems, and the system maintenance is “fairly minimal.” Minor work, like cleaning the solar panels, has been performed both by ThemeWorks’ in-house staff, as well as specialty solar maintenance firms. “We’ve had two inverters go out,” he reveals, “but they were replaced under warranty by Solar Impact, the original contractor on the project. Overall, the system has been very reliable and required very little attention from us.”
Regarding unexpected benefits or drawback from the system, Gill says it really has not deviated much from the company’s expectations nine years ago and has performed as advertised. However, after the initial installation, he did note, “One of the benefits of the panels that most people don’t consider is that they shade the roof and help in cooling our production facility, a nice bonus in our warm Florida weather.”
For any attraction or industry manufacturer and supplier that’s considering installing a solar power system, he points out that one upside is the cost of solar installations continues to decrease.
“Our system today would cost approximately 43% less than what we paid in 2012, primarily due to the reduced cost of the panels themselves,” he says. “Rebates, like we received from our utility, are still available; however, they are less than eight years ago. The net overall cost now would be around 5% less than our investment eight years ago.”
Still, it should be pointed out that, as a result of the cost decreases in solar panels and the increases in their efficiency over time, a new and dam-aging ecological threat is on the horizon. In the Harvard Business Review’s article titled “The Dark Side of Solar Power” published on June 18, 2021, researchers say economic incentives are “rapidly aligning to encourage customers to trade their existing panels for newer, cheaper, more efficient models.” Possible solutions like recycling panels “remain woefully inadequate,” and “the sheer volume of discarded panels will soon pose a risk of existentially damaging proportions.”
The researchers conclude that if panel replacements occur as predicted in their statistical model, around 315,000 metric tons of waste will be created in the United States alone over just four years. Further, the researchers point out that their statistics don’t do full justice to the crisis, as they address only the residential market. When commercial and industrial solar systems are factored in, the problem could be much larger. So there are some challenges ahead in developing a circular economy for sustainable technology.
At ThemeWorks, though the company is already benefiting financially from its solar power system, Gill says the decision to invest wasn’t driven strictly by the bottom line.
“Taking a long‑term approach in all we do is one of our core values,” Gill explains. “We believe we shouldn’t sell out the future for short‑term gains. While not perfect, we believe utilizing green energy, such as solar, demonstrates this ethos.”
He asserts that the attractions industry, known for being innovative and passionate about the future, should be at the forefront of adopting a more holistic viewpoint and taking action now. “We’d encourage other manufacturers and vendors in the industry to take a close look at government incentives and grants offered by many local utilities when considering investing in solar energy.”
Another Approach to Contributing to Solar Sustainability
Attractions and industry suppliers don’t necessarily have to incur the expense of incorporating solar power into their own electric power systems to contribute to sustainability. In November 2007, Carolina Solar Energy installed a total of 9,600 square feet of photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of three picnic pavilions at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. The zoo named the venue Solar Pointe.
The installation consists of 612 solar panels mounted on three 40-foot-by-80-foot metal roofs. The system produces 104 kilowatts of power and has been operating continuously since 2008. The energy produced by the panels is sold to Randolph Electric Membership Corp. for use in its electric grid.
- Contact Funworld News Editor Keith Miller at [email protected].