For the past few years, Dane County has been working to make its buildings more energy-efficient, hoping to save taxpayers thousands of dollars in heating and cooling costs and reduce environmental impact. One main focus of these efforts has been the Henry Vilas Zoo.
"The county is doing a lot right now with conservation and eco-friendly building," says county Supv. Chuck Erickson, a member of the zoo commission. "The zoo has seen a lot of this focus."
The nearly 100-year-old facility, one of only a handful of accredited free zoos in the country, has seen tremendous growth in both visitors and animal exhibits. In 2005, the Henry Vilas Zoological Society launched a $27 million "Zoo Century" capital campaign, on a 10-year timeline. A new conservation education pavilion was completed this year. So was a Children's Zoo, featuring year-round animal exhibits and a play area. A new flamingo exhibit is nearly done. And there are plans to build a $9 million Arctic Passage exhibit housing polar bears, seals and reindeer.
"We have replaced every major heating and lighting system," says Zoo director Jim Hubing. "The energy cost savings are about $35,000 a year."
The county is also allocating funds in next year's budget to make the zoo's tropical rainforest aviary more energy-efficient.
"This is the least energy-efficient building in the zoo," says Topf Wells, chief of staff to County Executive Kathleen Falk. "In fact, it is the least energy-efficient building in the entire county."
The aviary's boilers are highly inefficient, and its roof leaks heat. Hubing says that makes it hard, especially in the winter, to keep the aviary at the 70% humidity necessary for the zoo's tropical birds.
Falk's proposed 2008 budget includes $350,000 for a new aviary roof - a cost offset by $120,000 in insurance money from hail damage - and $65,000 for new boilers. Wells says these improvements will be completed in 2008 and should save the county about $19,000 a year.
The zoo has long looked for ways to improve energy efficiency. For several years, there has been a solar panel array in the flamingo yard. The energy it generates - about one-quarter of what's needed to power the average home - is sold back to Madison Gas & Electric.
Many zoo exhibits use recycled and filtered water, and the new badger exhibit has sod on its roof for insulation, to cut down on heating costs.
"You'd be amazed how many people notice that we have grass growing on our roof," says Hubing.
And the popular Conservation Carousel in the Children's Zoo, which features endangered animals instead of the standard carousel horses, was also built to be energy-efficient.
"The entire machine is run by one small electric motor," says Hubing. "The energy we use amounts to a few pennies of electricity per ride, and it raises about $136,000 annually for the zoo."
Finally, the zoo offers conservation education programs for more than 40,000 children each year. "We want our visitors to know how important conservation is," Hubing says. "It goes hand-in-hand with protecting our environment."