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Denver Zoo planned to turn dung into energy

A decade or so ago, Denver Zoo leaders had an innovative idea. As part of their quest to become “the greenest zoo in the country” and a zero-waste facility by 2025, they would develop a technique to transform elephant dung and other waste at the zoo such as paper plates and dirty diapers into fuel pellets that would generate electricity through a process called gasification.

The power would help light and heat the 10-acre elephant exhibit and warm pools in which the animals wade and swim in the winter. The zoo estimated that it would reduce what it sends to landfills by 90 percent.

The state and the city said yes. The Environmental Protection Agency was interested, as was the National Renewable Energy Lab. Permits were obtained. The gasification plant would be built on the zoo grounds in the heart of Denver’s City Park.

The zoo showed off the project’s potential by powering a blender to make margaritas and, later, a motorized rickshaw that went on a promotional tour to zoos across the West. This green electricity would power an elephant exhibit sponsored by a major consumer of fossil fuels, Toyota.

“Everyone was on board,” said Tiffany Barnhart, a spokeswoman for the zoo. “Everyone loved it.”

Nearly everyone.

As the years passed and plans proceeded, a small but persistent group of neighborhood activists began raising questions and applying pressure to the City Council. Would the plant disrupt peaceful City Park? Would it really meet air quality regulations? The zoo said of course it would – it would have to.

The Denver Post stood up for the project this month.

“It is a smart plan, one that has gone through extensive review and approval. Continued gripes from some opponents are misguided and, frankly, way too late,” the Post editorial board wrote Sept. 12.

That prompted neighborhood reaction. Larry Ambrose of Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation wrote that the project needed more study and had been “unilaterally” approved by a parks manager appointed by the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock.

He said his group had been frustrated by a decision several years earlier to take certain park zoning decisions away from the City Council, ostensibly reducing the ability of residents to influence policy.

Denver Zoo cancels plan to turn animal dung into energy