Before the end of 2018, Disney will flip the switch on a sprawling 50-megawatt solar power facility composed of more than a half-million solar panels, just outside Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The move is aimed, in part, at helping Disney achieve its larger plan to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent worldwide by 2020, compared to 2012.
“At our sites around the world, we’re investing in hidden magic to continually reduce our environmental footprint,” Bob Chapek, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products, said.
The soon-to-open Disney World solar facility, spread along a 270-acre designated renewable energy area, will produce enough energy to supply 10,000 homes annually and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 57,000 tons per year, according to Disney’s estimates. That is the annual equivalent of removing roughly 9,300 automobiles from the roads, the company says.
The energy will not actually go to Disney’s theme parks, but rather into the local power grid. Nonetheless, with one eye on its global reputation and another on its customers’ increasing focus on sustainability, Disney is emerging as a renewable energy force.
Disney’s move toward cleaner energy comes when brand image for global giants goes far beyond, say, merely a ride on Space Mountain — particularly among free-spending but environmentally sensitive millennials. Indeed, some 79 percent of consumers say they seek out products that are socially or environmentally responsible, according to a 2017 study by Cone Communications.
“Our guests tell us the environment is important, so it’s a big deal for us,” said Mark Penning, vice president of Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment. Since it’s a big deal to guests, it is also a huge deal to Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney, who has repeatedly said that he wants Disney to be the most admired company in the world, “Not just for creating incredible content, but for being a responsible citizen of the world,” says Dr. Penning, who is a veterinarian.
Disney’s solar and renewable efforts are not limited to Florida. In Tokyo, Disneyland’s electrical parade light show is fueled by solar panels from eight building rooftops, which generate more than 600 kilowatts of power. In Europe, Disneyland Paris uses geothermal energy to power two of its theme parks and a hotel.
At Shanghai’s Disney Resort, a combined cooling and heating plant reduces emissions by 60 percent — partially by converting waste heat into energy. Disney also is building three new cruise ships that will be run on clean-burning liquefied natural gas when they head out to sea in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
But going green hasn’t always worked perfectly at Disney. For example, in 2015, when it first tried to “green” its bus fleet, executives thought the solution might be electric buses. But they discovered that electric buses failed to reduce carbon emission as much as using renewable fuels made with used cooking oil and non-consumable food waste.
While some renewable energy advocates would like Disney to do even more to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, Disney’s leadership in this area is likely to encourage others. “What Disney is doing is an important part of the trend that’s changing the nation’s grid,” says Gregory Wetstone, chief executive of the American Council on Renewable Energy.
Just five years ago, very few companies were actively producing their own renewable powers, Mr. Wetstone said. But now, he said, “the most sophisticated companies are learning how to go out on their own and do it.” Of course, none can accomplish this without enlisting energy partners. Disney’s new facility in central Florida, for example, is a collaboration with the Reedy Creek Improvement District and solar project developer Origis Energy USA. Disney officials declined to discuss the financials of their renewable energy projects.
Also in central Florida, Disney — with the help of Duke Energy — opened a solar facility in 2016 that’s famously shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. The five-megawatt solar facility on 22 acres near Epcot is made of 48,000 solar panels. Duke Energy sells the resulting alternative energy — enough to power 1,000 homes — to Reedy Creek.
In some cases, Disney park customers can already see solar at work.
At the flagship Disneyland Resort, solar panels sit atop the Radiator Springs Racers ride in Cars Land. The system — which opened in 2016 — generates electricity for the Disney California Adventure Park. The 40,000-square-foot operation features more than 1,400 high-efficiency solar panels and generates enough energy to annually power 100 Anaheim homes.
Could Walt Disney have imagined all of this renewable energy in his parks?
“I’m not sure if he could dream of this,” Dr. Penning said. “But his dreams did result in Epcot, which was meant to be the first sustainable development.”
Indeed, a sustainable lifestyle has become part of Dr. Penning’s daily routine. He has rid himself of single-use plastics — and instead of driving a car, he prefers to use a motorcycle. “Except when it’s pouring rain,” he said.
Some of Disney’s environmental actions sound almost like fairy tales. Take the Cinderella Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. Its holiday display of 170,000 lights has been painstakingly switched to LED lighting. Since that change, the energy to power that eye-popping display has been reduced to an amount needed to power just four coffee pots.
Even for Disney, renewable energy requires more than pixie dust.