The exotic animals of the sprawling ARK sanctuary, operated by the nonprofit Performing Animal Welfare Society in the rolling hills of Calaveras County, enjoy long days of sunlight, rarely blocked by fog or dense clouds even during the winter months.
It is the perfect environment for harnessing solar energy, said PAWS founder Ed Stewart.
Sixteen years after it opened to accommodate elephants, tigers, bears and other animals rescued or retired from circuses and the exotic animal trade, ARK has finally gone solar. It has begun using the power of the sun to fuel its hydraulic water pumps, gates, oversized refrigerators and freezers, and staff offices, saving the sanctuary precious dollars and preserving its pledge to take care of the environment, Stewart said.
ARK, one of three Northern California sanctuaries operated by PAWS, may be the first large wildlife refuge to fully convert to solar energy, Stewart said.
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“I wasn’t sure we could do it with an operation this big and sprawling,” he said of ARK’s 2,300-acre refuge near San Andreas. “If we can do it, anyone can.”
Stewart and his founding partner, the late Pat Derby, had thought about converting to solar for years.
“We talked about it, but we really don’t have the money around here to do anything extra,” he said. A volunteer, Ray Pingle, researched the project and persuaded Stewart to go forward.
“It’s an investment,” he said. “We almost couldn’t afford not to do it.”
During a span of about three weeks, California-based SUNWorks installed 420 solar panels on the roofs of two huge elephant barns that span 28,000 square feet. The panels will produce enough electricity to power 25 average homes for an entire year, according to the company.
The solar conversion cost $318,000, Stewart said, and is expected to pay for itself within about six years. It will save the sanctuary an estimated $1.5 million in electricity costs over the next 25 years.
But the cost savings is only part of the payoff, Stewart said.
The electricity produced by the solar systems will be virtually “pollution free,” he pointed out. Solar power is not associated with air pollution emissions, and thus “does not contribute to global warming, which is negatively affecting the world’s wildlife and oceans,” Stewart said. In its first month of operation, the ARK system has already significantly reduced the sanctuary’s carbon footprint, saving the equivalent of 25 tons of CO2 and carbon pollution, equivalent to burning 4,000 gallons of gasoline, he said.
“Our mission is to save animals and wildlife,” Stewart said. “This project fits in. We’re trying to look at the bigger picture, and this is one more thing we can do.
“We’ve always tried to be careful about our use of electricity,” he said. “Our hydraulic pumps are so big, and they use a lot of juice. Now, when we turn them on, we feel a lot better, knowing that we’re not burning a bunch of fuel.”
So far, Stewart said, the conversion has been surprisingly smooth. “No glitches.” He hopes ARK’s experience catches on.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of other zoos and sanctuaries decide to go solar.”
For more information about PAWS, go to www.pawsweb.org