Solar-charged rollercoasters, wind-powered Ferris Wheels and other renewable-powered attractions could become business as usual for the amusement parks of the future.
Already, a handful of major theme park companies are embracing green energy, from California and New York to the United Kingdom.
Most recently, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation committed to powering two of its California parks almost entirely with energy from the sun. Beginning later this year, Six Flags will generate at least 7 megawatts (MW) of electricity with solar panels strategically located over the parking lot of its Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California. A second system at Magic Mountain, near Los Angeles, will have capacity for nearly 15 MW, making it the largest solar carport in North America.
And over in New Jersey, Six Flags is transforming one of its existing sites into the world’s biggest theme park to be completely powered by solar energy, preventing as much as 1.5 million tons of carbon particles from going into the atmosphere each year.
The bright side of solar-powered amusement parks
“Amusement parks need a lot of energy to power rides, concessions and offices,” says Goehring. During the peak summer season, attendance reaches its highest levels and rides tend to be at their busiest in the middle of the the afternoon, when the sun is the brightest. This means they can generate the most power when they are consuming the most energy.
That’s a big deal in California, which has some of the most expensive utility rates in the country. “By transitioning to solar power, Six Flags expects to save several hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first year alone—and even more as electricity prices go up in the future,” says Goehring, who acted as lead agent for Six Flags on the project.
Plus, Goehring says that by bringing in solar energy, amusement parks can provide extremely visible evidence of corporate responsibility commitments and even improve the guest experience. “Shaded parking is always an advantage in sunny Southern California, and solar carports make it easier to provide the infrastructure of charging stations for electric vehicles that are increasing in number,” he points out.
Yet amusements parks don’t need to go through huge renovations to become more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.
“Solar carports, like the ones being developed at Six Flags, have a lot of potential because they’re free-standing structures that don’t require additional land,” says Goehring. “But there are several other ways theme parks can take advantage of renewables, from installing solar on the roof of a ticket booth or over a walkway, to purchasing green power from an offsite provider.”
For example, California’s Great America plans to power its 100-acre park with 100 percent wind energy purchased from an offsite provider. In Florida, meanwhile, Disney World has built a large ground-based solar array shaped like Mickey ears.
At Hersheypark in New York an 80-foot wind turbine both produces power and promotes renewable energy to visitors. And across the Atlantic, in Wales, Green Wood Forest Park is 100 percent powered by renewable energy—mostly the sun but also people power, in the case of its Green Dragon roller coaster.
Is an all-renewable future possible?
While renewable power is becoming more common, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for theme parks. “Every park will have its own set of considerations around renewable energy depending on its location, its revenue and its attractions,” says Goehring. “It’s important to look at the individual long-term business plan, and analyze whether on-site generation makes economic sense given the growth projections.”
Goehring also points to the importance of engaging stakeholders at the outset. “A successful project depends on buy-in from the on-site park management team, local utility and community. They need to be involved as early as possible,” he advises.
And as the economic case gets stronger, green energy may have more supporters. Indeed, with many U.S. states still offering substantial incentives for renewable energy projects, and the cost of solar panels coming down while electricity prices go up, more theme parks are likely to find they too can get on board with green power.