- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - A historic Yellowstone National Park property that a century ago was at the leading edge of wildlife conservation is now being used as a model for harnessing renewable energy on-site.

If all goes as planned, in a few years Lamar Buffalo Ranch will no longer rely on burning hydrocarbons to power an educational center, employee housing and outbuildings that are located there.

The ranch - which was used to build up a bison herd from some of the last of the species on Earth - will instead get its electricity from a photovoltaic solar panel array and micro-hydroelectric turbine, both of with will feed into a battery bank made up of discarded hybrid vehicle batteries.

“We would like to have an operation that generally doesn’t need a generator,” Yellowstone park civil engineer Molly Nelson said on a tour of the ranch. “Because it’s an educational facility and because it’s off the grid, we would like to eventually go to net-zero energy.”

The first step in the process was adding a new 45-kilowatt solar array, which was recently installed on the edge of the ranch and is now up and running. Built and manufactured by Sharp, the 180 panels, each 250 watts, were a donation - like much of the infrastructure going in at Buffalo Ranch.

The solar array sits on about a third of an acre and is down in a natural depression so that it’s hard to see from the nearby highway.

“Because it’s historic and people come here wanting to see nature and not feel like they’re in a developed area, we tried to site them in a low-visibility area,” Nelson said.

A smaller array - 14 kilowatts - has been located there since 1995. The electric output of the Sharp system might be more than doubled in size down the road, and built up to 100 kilowatts.

All of the electricity generated is run through an inverter that converts it from AC to DC power and is then fed into a battery bank. A room full of 208 reused hybrid vehicle batteries, all from Toyota Camrys, stores the power until lightbulbs, heaters and appliances at the ranch buildings use it up.

Using the car batteries as a bank for the solar power was a bit of an experiment, Nelson said. The system didn’t go live until this May.

“This is pioneering it,” Nelson said. “That’s why it has taken a while to get it up and running, because it’s been an iterative process.”

Because of a proprietary design Yellowstone did not allow the News&Guide; to photograph the battery configuration.

Imagine a wall-size cubby box, each compartment containing its own old Camry battery. Wires lead into and out of each battery.

Although the batteries, which also were donated, have collectively transported people tens of millions of road miles, indications are that they’ll last for at least 20 years, Nelson said.

The battery bank is a critical component of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch project.

Because the sun sets each night and a low-angle sun and snowstorms are a reality in the winter months, the system packs away electricity gathered during sunny times for use later on.

The Camry batteries can be fully charged in 12 hours and collectively can store enough power to satisfy electricity demands at the campus for two to three days, Nelson said.

Other clean power additions and energy-efficiency measures are on the horizon at the Buffalo Ranch.

A water main that feeds out of a spring on the banks of nearby Rose Creek will soon lead to a micro-hydro turbine.

Electricity generated from the turbine will be about 4.5 kilowatts, enough to power just a couple of small homes. Although not as substantial as the solar array, electricity from the turbine will be continuous, which is important.

“It’s a significant amount for this campus,” Nelson said, “especially because hydro coming from a spring that’s flowing constantly is a constant input, whereas solar is during the day when there’s sun.”

The micro-hydro turbine could be built as soon as this year, but funds need to be raised. The Yellowstone Park Foundation is heading that effort, Nelson said.

Also down the road is a solar system that will provide hot water, and energy-efficiency and insulation improvements to buildings at the site. Someday the system’s performance will be broadcast online, Nelson said.

Altogether, Yellowstone figures that renewable energy will “theoretically eliminate” propane use at the Lamar ranch, park plans show. In a recent one-year span 14,846 gallons were used at the site.

To complete the whole project, Nelson said, might take “five to 10” years.

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Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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