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Here comes the sun?
Published September 21, 2009
They call Florida the Sunshine State. And yet, at a time when teams, leagues and sports architects say they are paying more attention than ever to environmentally friendly design and operation of their facilities, neither of the two major pro teams that have broken ground on new digs in the state will get much, if any, of their power from the sun.
Both say they found that one of the few sources of clean, renewable energy doesn’t make economic sense for a stadium or arena, at least not yet.
Even with the price of solar panels cut nearly in half since last year and projected to continue falling; even with a federal tax break that covers 30 percent of the installed cost, with no cap; even with state incentives that are as attractive as the federal perk in some locales; even with electricity rates expected to continue to rise; even with utilities on the clock to incorporate more clean power or face stiff penalties.
Even with all that, most teams that have looked into solar say they find they can’t break even — or come close — without stretching the payback across two or three decades. And that even if they were willing to wait out the payback, they’d have a hard time finding space for the thousands of panels they would need to create enough power to come close to sating the enormous appetite of a stadium or arena.
And so the Orlando Magic, who will open the new Amway Center in 2010, doesn’t plan to install any solar panels. The Florida Marlins will use solar only on the four parking garages adjacent to the new, retractable-roof ballpark they will open in 2012.
Still, both expect to achieve LEED certification, the standard by which the U.S. Green Building Council recognizes sustainable environmental practices in design, construction and operation.
In April, AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami gained LEED certification, joining Philips Arena in Atlanta as the first arenas in the nation to do so (see story, page 16). Neither of those incorporated solar.
“The facilities today all are being designed to a certain LEED standard, and yet solar really isn’t part of the conversation,” said Mike Wooley, who specializes in LEED operations and maintenance for sports architecture firm Populous. “Nobody has come up with that magic product that says ‘this is lightweight, the infrastructure is minimal and you can get your return on investment within a few years.’ Until that happens, it’s not going to be something that people are going to universally yearn for as a part of their sustainable design.”
At the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nonprofit group that works as a consultant with Major League Baseball and the NBA, among others in sports, the dearth of solar initiatives is disturbing.
The NRDC scientist who works with the sports properties, Allen Hershkowitz, has set a goal of convincing every team in MLB and the NBA to install at least some solar panels within the next seven years. He said he was “terribly disappointed” when neither the New York Yankees nor the New York Mets put panels on their new ballparks, especially since putting in solar thermal to heat water costs less than $200,000.
When architects and facility managers consider sustainability, they generally do it within the parameters of LEED certification, which is based on the accumulation of points.
In order to gain even one point for installing on-site renewable energy, such as solar panels or wind turbines, a facility would have to get at least 2.5 percent of its power from them. To get two points it would have to get 7.5 percent from them. Since there are far cheaper ways to get points, such as by using energy efficient equipment or installing low-flow plumbing, teams typically tell their architects and builders to go in other directions.
“Typically the operations people want to see meaningful energy benefits, and we support that,” Hershkowitz said. “But we think that there’s value when you look at a place like Fenway Park, where solar provides one third of the energy needed to heat the water. That’s a very small amount. But we think that’s still important, because a fan sees it and it raises awareness.
“So much of this is being driven by LEED, and that’s good, but that’s not enough. This is not about scoring LEED points. This is about making an impact when we’re facing a planetary emergency. Any impact is good.”
Numbers don’t work
While a handful of pro stadiums and arenas have erected small solar arrays and many others are considering it — if they can find a sponsor to pay for it — those are more about promoting a green message than shifting to a sustainable power model.
In Major League Baseball, the San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies all have installed small clusters of solar panels. Of those, the Giants have the largest installation: 590 panels that generate 123 kilowatts, or a bit more than it takes to power the center-field Diamond Vision scoreboard. It takes almost 10 times that much energy to light the typical field for a night game.
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Only Staples Center is actually up and running. In October, it spent $2.3 million to install a 345-kilowatt system that covers about 25,000 square feet of the arena roof and $1.2 million for a smaller system at the adjacent Nokia Theatre. The installations provide about 10 percent of the power for the theater and almost 3 percent of the juice for the arena.
The Phoenix Suns announced in October that they would place about 1,100 panels on the roof of adjacent parking garages, but the plan stalled as the result of a regulatory dispute. Negotiations were ongoing last week and Suns CEO Rick Welts said the franchise remains committed to the project, which is expected to cost about $1.5 million.
Later this year, Pocono will spend about $16 million to install 39,960 panels, each 2 feet by 4 feet, on 25 acres of vacant land it once used for parking, creating a 3 megawatt solar farm that will generate enough electricity to power the facility, plus meet the needs of nearly 1,000 homes when the additional, unused power is fed into the grid.
While that’s a massive, enviable project — and one that Pocono projects will start turning a profit in about 10 years — it’s not realistic for most facilities, which are built on far smaller footprints.
“It just takes a tremendous amount of surface area to create an advantage,” said Robert Rayborn, a project executive for Turner Construction, one of the leading stadium and arena builders. “That’s why, in general, we don’t see more of it. Between the space, the weight and the cost, it’s hard to find a way to make it work.”
It’s not for lack of interest.
The Magic, Marlins and Miami Heat all say they explored solar power. While Florida doesn’t get as many hours of intense sun as Arizona or Southern California, it’s not far behind.
In Orlando, the Magic and the city considered putting panels on the arena roof, the parking garages and a connector bridge that joins them. They found that, covering all that space, they’d still be hard-pressed to reach the 2.5 percent of power generation needed to get the first LEED point.
“It would have meant spending millions of dollars up front for thousands of dollars in return on an annual basis,” said Brad Clark, an architect with Populous, designer of the new Orlando arena. “We were talking about large volume, rather than a feel-good display. Considering the cost vs. payback, it was not practical.”
The Marlins went into the planning for their new ballpark with high hopes of harnessing the South Florida sun. They considered solar power on a continuum, ranging from the largest installation they could build down to doing nothing at all. They landed closer to the latter than the former.
“We knew you couldn’t run a building like this on solar, but can you buttress your regular power with solar power in a meaningful way?” asked David Samson, the Marlins’ president. “The answer was maybe. So we were a little bit hopeful. But then you look at the cost effectiveness of that power. We did that equation, and it’s an iffy proposition. It was not something that we were able to get comfortable with.”
The Heat became interested in solar while going through LEED certification last year. They contacted the company that installed panels at Staples Center, but found the cost to be prohibitive. They since have floated the idea of a small solar or wind installation to the local power provider and said they’re waiting to hear back. That’s where most teams are landing as they explore possibilities for alternative energy.
“I just don’t think people feel solar is the answer,” said Kathy Behrens, executive vice president for social responsibility and player programs at the NBA. “They’re looking at it in homes in a way they hadn’t before. But it doesn’t make sense for all our buildings. They’re not all designed in such a way that solar is an easy answer. And if it’s not … the juice might not be worth the squeeze.”
Next year, the New York Jets and New York Giants will open their new stadium in New Jersey, which has the most solar power installed per capita of any state other than California. Stadium executives have been contacted by at least a half dozen companies proposing solar panels or wind turbines at the facility, said Dave Duernberger, vice president of facility operations for the New Meadowlands Stadium Company.
Duernberger came to the stadium earlier this year from the Philadelphia Eagles, the acknowledged leader on sustainability issues among U.S. sports teams. The Eagles, who have a small solar array at their training facility, have looked into doing something larger at their stadium for years, but haven’t hit on anything that makes sense. They’ve made a priority of other more cost-efficient investments that deliver a larger impact.
“In order to really make a dent requires a substantial amount of real estate, otherwise you can’t harness enough power to make a difference,” Duernberger said. “That’s a big challenge. Our building is massive, at over 2 million square feet. There’s a lot of space, so there could be some opportunities. But it’s not easy to get a payback. We’ll see.”
Pocono powers up
The largest solar installation plan tied to any sports facility in the world was born of a joke cracked while two executives at Pocono Raceway were fretting about an anticipated $500,000 annual increase in their power bill stemming from deregulation in Pennsylvania.
George Ewald, the vice president and superintendent, told the track president, Brandon Igdalsky, that they should just put solar panels on the roof and cut the power cord entirely.
Ewald was joking. But then they thought more about it. And talked more. And investigated. The more they dug, the more plausible it seemed. Igdalsky was at lunch after a parade celebrating the Phillies’ World Series win when he struck up a conversation with a stranger who, it turned out, owned a company that installs solar panels. It sounded like solar at a speedway could make sense.
“When we did our due diligence and became educated, we started realizing the possibilities,” Igdalsky said. “The stimulus package did a lot for renewable energy. Between (the 30 percent tax credit) and state grants and federal money that trickled down that we’ve been applying for, it all made sense.”
Because the installation is so large, it should cover the speedway’s power needs with ease. The additional power it throws off then will feed into the local power grid. The speedway will get a check each month for the excess power.
More importantly, it also will earn renewable energy credits (REC), which it will trade on the open market. Power providers purchase RECs to meet the clean energy requirements that have been imposed by many state regulators. Igdalsky estimates those will be worth $2 million to $3 million annually, in Pennsylvania, and could increase in value.
The speedway expects that between what it will save on power, the electricity it sells back and the revenue from RECs, the project will pay for itself in 10 years.
“And that’s worst-case scenario,” Igdalsky said. “If rates increase like we think they might be, it could be six or eight years.
“We couldn’t afford not to do it.”
Staples Center, with the heaviest solar installation that the building’s roof could handle, expects to recoup its investment in six and a half years.
“We were under no illusions that this would be able to pay for itself in five years,” said Lee Zeidman, senior vice president and general manager of Staples Center and Nokia Theatre. “What we felt was more important was that we could now go to artists and agents and managers and show we are taking an additional step to become more green. … That matters to people.”
In meetings with both MLB and the NBA in the coming month, Hershkowitz intends to stress that point, hoping to convince the leagues to nudge teams toward installing panels or turbines, even if only on a small scale. Lower prices, combined with federal and state incentives, have made solar more affordable. Hershkowitz believes the push toward sustainable power makes a stadium or arena a logical place for a utility to underwrite the cost as part of a sponsorship.
“The absence of solar is not a result of teams’ unwillingness to consider it,” Hershkowitz said. “It’s that they are bumping into some very unfortunate economics. It really is an uphill battle to incorporate alternative energy systems in a cost competitive way. I understand that. But the point is not to just throw your hands up and say we can’t do it.
“We have to figure this out.”
Staff writer Don Muret contributed to this report.