Exploratorium strives to produce as much power as it uses


Ever since the Exploratorium opened in 1969 the hands-on science museum has been known for innovation. That tradition is on full display in the design of the Exploratorium's new home -- a historic pier now undergoing a complete overhaul.

Pier 15 sticks out more than 800 feet over the water -- a giant warehouse-type building that could eat up a lot of power. So engineers are trying something different: net-zero energy.

Engineer Peter Rumsey is a true believer.

"It was part research, part evangelical, you know, getting people to get excited about it and then just sheer determination," he said.

Net-zero means the building will create at least as much energy as it uses. The power comes from a huge field of high efficiency solar panels on the roof. They're made by a Silicon Valley company called SunPower and they're expected to generate 1.3 megawatts -- about what it takes to run 1,000 American homes for a year.

"What you will notice differently on this panel is no glare, all black, no metal on the front, so all the sunshine that hits the panel goes into the cell," SunPower CEO Tom Werner said.

But that's just the start. To reach net-zero, the new Exploratorium will also have to use less power.

The main reason that net-zero approach is even possible for the new Exploratorium is because the new building sits right next to the cool waters of San Francisco Bay. And in order to heat and cool the building they are able to use this water in a very clever way.

Bay water comes into the building through a giant filter.

"We bring the water in at a very slow speed so no fish get sucked up into it," Rumsey said. "This is the same technology used in an aquarium. There's a set of other filters inside there that get all the small micro-organisms out."

The water is pumped to a big blue tank called a heat exchanger. Inside, state-of-the-art technology pulls heat out of the water in winter and cools it in the summer. Pipes carry it all over the building like a giant radiator.

During the process huge filters are raised and lowered for cleaning and visitors will be able to see it all through a window.

"This room is now going to be part of the exhibit to explain how the building works," Rumsey said.

There will be one brand new building -- a glass observatory with spectacular views. But all the windows make controlling the temperature a challenge.

"So we compensated for that by using a super energy efficient glass," architect Marc L'Italien said.

The tiny ceramic lines at the top and bottom reduce heat and make the glass visible to birds so they don't fly into it.

Work on the redesigned pier is almost 90 percent finished now, but reaching net-zero energy will take more time.

"We actually have 2,000 monitoring points in the new building that will help us determine what's working and what's not," L'Italien said.

That information will be used to fine tune the energy systems over time with the final goal of becoming the largest museum in the country that creates as much power as it uses.

Now is your chance to get in a last visit to the old Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts. It will be open through Jan. 2. The new building is expected to open sometime next spring.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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