Propane dehydrogenation (PDH) to propene is an important alternative to oil-based cracking processes, to produce this industrially important platform chemical1,2. The commercial PDH technologies utilizing Cr-containing (refs. 3,4) or Pt-containing (refs. 5,6,7,8) catalysts suffer from the toxicity of Cr(vi) compounds or the need to use ecologically harmful chlorine for catalyst regeneration9. Here, we introduce a method for preparation of environmentally compatible supported catalysts based on commercial ZnO. This metal oxide and a support (zeolite or common metal oxide) are used as a physical mixture or in the form of two layers with ZnO as the upstream layer. Supported ZnOx species are in situ formed through a reaction of support OH groups with Zn atoms generated from ZnO upon reductive treatment above 550 °C. Using different complementary characterization methods, we identify the decisive role of defective OH groups for the formation of active ZnOx species. For benchmarking purposes, the developed ZnO–silicalite-1 and an analogue of commercial K–CrOx/Al2O3 were tested in the same setup under industrially relevant conditions at close propane conversion over about 400 h on propane stream. The developed catalyst reveals about three times higher propene productivity at similar propene selectivity.