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San Francisco's Exploratorium to Go Zero-Net Energy

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The Exploratorium's rooftop solar array | Photo courtesy the Exploratorium

San Francisco's Exploratorium, a destination for science education for three generations of Bay Area visitors, will demonstrate some really important science when it moves to its new location on San Francisco's waterfront in 2013. Using rooftop solar and advanced energy conservation tools, the museum expects to generate all the energy it uses on-site, making it a "zero-net energy" institution.

The museum's new home at Piers 15-17 on The Embarcadero, slated for opening in spring 2013, will be powered by a 1.3-megawatt photovoltaic array installed on the building's roof by SunPower. The array's 5,874 solar panels make it the largest rooftop solar installation on a U.S. science museum. The Exploratorium expects to sell any surplus power generated by the array to PG&E's grid. A display inside the museum will update visitors on current output of the array, updated every 15 minutes.

The museum's rooftop solar is just one aspect of the new LEED-certified museum grounds. Indoor climate control will be accomplished with the help of San Francisco Bay, whose water stays between 50° and 65° year-round. Piped through a series of heat exchangers, that water will help cool the building during the summer and boost indoor heating on days when the air temperature falls below 50°. Indoor air quality will be maintained by use of non-outgassing construction materials, and the ventilation system will keep the air flowing without allowing it to recirculate.

Even those sections of the roof not covered in solar panels have a part to play in conserving the museum's resources. Rainwater hitting the roof will be used to flush museum toilets and floor drains, with unused rainwater routed to the Bay after being filtered.

The first phase of the Exploratorium's new grounds includes 330,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibit space on Piers 15 and 17, in a spot visited by millions of tourists each year. Some of those tourists may wonder why, if rooftop solar can power a large museum in famously foggy San Francisco, why it couldn't work for them at home. And that might just be the most important education the Exploratorium's new home performs.

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