Solar panel shaped like a sunflower now at Lee Richardson Zoo

Meghan Flynn
A SmartFlower solar unit, or a "Solar Sunflower", provides power for the Primate Forest-Lemurs! and flamingo exhibit buildings at Lee Richardson Zoo. The unit can retract when not in use and then open, to resemble a flower, when needed. It is located south of the exhibit.

Clean energy is now on exhibit at the Lee Richardson Zoo with the Smart Flower, a sunflower shaped solar panel.

The Smart Flower was done in collaboration between the zoo and Garden City Public Utilities and helps power the zoo’s new primate building and flamingo building.

Kristi Newland, executive director of the Lee Richardson Zoo, said the collaboration is years in the making, they’ve been talking about doing some educational component for a while.

“We already have a charging bench that folks can sit at and charge their phones or whatever else, but we wanted to do something else, so we just kind of put the bug in their ear, this was like two years ago,” she said. “Then as the sales tax project developed, the site by the primate forest area looked like it would be a good one for something.”

The idea for the Smart Flower was Garden City Public Utilities director Mike Muirhead’s idea, Newland said.

Muirhead said he was researching different ways to display the benefits of solar energy when he found the Smart Flower design.

He felt the design would be a good way to showcase the benefits of solar power at the zoo so that “the public can see it and benefit from it and learn from it.”

“I looked at other solar arrays that could be put in somewhere, but they’re not as cool as this one,” he said.

After talking with the zoo staff and finding a good location for it, the Smart Flower now sits at the zoo by the primate and flamingo exhibits with a display explaining how it works and how much energy it generates, Murihead said.

Muirhead said the zoo is an ideal location for the Smart Flower because so many people go through there and it’s a “great educational place.”

The Smart Flower kind of mimics a blooming flower, Murihead said.

“In the morning when it's dark it's all folded up and when the sun comes out it automatically opens up and it has a circular array of solar panels and it opens up and then it tracks the sun throughout the day to get the maximum exposure just like a sunflower, it just follows the sun all the way down,” he said. “Then when the sun goes down it closes itself back up, it goes back to its original position for tomorrow morning.”

The flower is also designed to close automatically when the wind goes over 30 mph of if there’s a bad storm and it gets dark.

It’s also self-cleaning, Murihead said. It has little brushes that keep the panel clean and every time it opens or close, the brushes come out to clear it off.

The Smart Flower can generate about 2500 watts of electricity and is expected to last 20 to 25 years, Muirhead said.

The Smart Flower was installed by 3G Electric, Robert Dunlap Construction and Hutton Construction, Muirhead said.