Forward Pass for Renewables
Photograph by Max Taylor
With the 2011 National Football League season now in full swing, savvy fans are scanning the field for the latest tactics for attacking and protecting the goal line. But above and around the stadium, another important NFL play is in motion: A move to cleaner energy.
Following a trend under way at sports facilities around the world, three NFL clubs were planning to showcase new green energy installations this season. The Washington Redskins unveiled their new installation of 8,000 solar panels (and new "Solar Man" sculpture) at FedEx Field today (above), and are touting their upcoming home game this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals as "the Solar Bowl." The next week, when the Cardinals travel to Seattle, the Seahawks will show off the new 3,750-panel array on the roof of CenturyLink Field (formerly Qwest Field) in their home opener.
Perhaps the most ambitious NFL energy project that has been announced, a bid to make Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field energy self-sufficient, will not be completed as planned for the start of this season, said team spokesman Rob Zeiger.
(Related: "Pictures: Kickoff Time for Green Stadiums")
The NFL says it shouldn't be surprising that the league is on the eco-friendly bandwagon. "The NFL is in many ways a copycat league," said David Krichavsky, the league's community affairs director. "When a team has great success on the field using a particular offensive or defensive strategy, it is common for other teams to start using that strategy. The same is true off the field."
Reflecting the oil-gas-coal-heavy energy mix of the United States, about 72 percent of the energy powering NFL stadiums comes from fossil fuels, according to research the environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), compiled using government data.
The new projects reflect an effort to shift that ratio, although it means that the NFL teams are investing in renewable technology at a time when economic conditions and fierce global competition have roiled some segments of the industry. Seattle's solar panels were made by bankrupt manufacturer Solyndra, while the Eagles intended to buy their wind turbines from financially troubled Helix Wind.
(Related: "Google's Solar Energy Gambit")
With about 1 million fans turning out to NFL stadiums each weekend, and last season's opening contests watched on television by an average of 19.5 million viewers, the NRDC says it should be no surprise it is working with the NFL, Major League Baseball, and other U.S. professional leagues to minimize the environmental impact of sporting events. "What's really astounding is it's taken the modern environmental movement 40 years to affiliate with professional sports," said Allen Hershkowitz, NRDC senior scientist. "The specific ecological footprint of any stadium is not gigantic. But their cultural influence is."
Published September 15, 2011
CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Photograph courtesy Rod Mar, Seattle Seahawks
Forget that Seattle is known for rain and clouds far more than solar power. "I think the cloudiness factor is more mythological than real," Seahawks team president Peter McLoughlin said in an interview.
Besides, the project at CenturyLink Field (seen here)--home to Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders as well as the Seahawks--doesn't need direct sunlight. It uses cutting-edge thin-film photovoltaic material designed to capture sunlight around a unique 360° cylindrical surface. The technology was the signature achievement of California's Solyndra, which now is under scrutiny due to its bankruptcy and the $535 million in U.S. federal loan guarantees that helped propel the one-time industry star's growth.
Asked about Solyndra's issues, the Seahawks said in a written statement that the project was not set back. "The solar array installation is complete and generating energy. The events surrounding the vendor will not affect the operation," the team said. Despite Solyndra's inability to raise enough capital to keep going, its technology worked in the Seattle project, say those involved.
"You get production on direct sunlight, reflected sunlight and diffused sunlight," said Matt Wegworth, business development manager for the energy team at design-build firm McKinstry, which shepherded the installation. The roof was painted white to reflect more light and absorb less heat.
According to the team, the 3,750 panels cover more than 2.5 acres (1 hectare) and are expected to generate more than 830,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually—an amount that would power roughly 95 Seattle-area homes for a year. It's the largest solar energy array in the state, the team said.
"Seeing the stadium from my office got me thinking about how we could use roof space to add a solar array," Seahawks owner Paul Allen, who funded the system, said in a statement provided by the Seahawks.
The team had to be committed, McLoughlin said. Although the array is expected to reduce the team's utility bills by 21 percent, the initial investment in the solar equipment is costly. The team has not detailed how much it paid for the installation, but McLoughlin said simply, "These projects don't necessarily pay for themselves right away." The team has also introduced conservation measures such as low-flow urinals in the stadium and made improvements to the heating and cooling systems. Most of the stadium's waste gets recycled.
The Seahawks and Sounders hope their efforts can be an educational tool for fans. The solar panels are visible mainly from the upper levels of a parking garage adjacent to the stadium—meaning not all spectators will see them.
"We're considering developing kiosks (for fans) that would track how much energy is being captured," McLoughlin said.
Published September 15, 2011
FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland
Photograph by Max Taylor
The Washington Redskins' project, designed with team sponsor NRG Energy, is designed to have an impact that select fans will experience the moment they arrive at the lot at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. The panels are installed above 841 premium parking spaces across the street from the stadium, providing a new covered venue protecting fans from the elements.
"I didn't realize how spectacular this was going to become," Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said today at a stadium news conference in which Snyder, NRG president and CEO David Crane and football analyst James Brown were flanked by team cheerleaders. Rock music ("Walking on Sunshine" and other solar-related selections) blared from nearby speakers.
The project's most prominent feature is the parking structure, which looks like a series of car ports and contains about 7,500 of the panels (manufactured by SunPower). There will soon also be translucent solar panels – produced by Schott – collecting energy above a stadium ramp. A third variety of solar panel, a thin-film product made by Konarka Technologies, is contained in a 30-foot (9-meter) sculpture of a silhouetted football player throwing a pass.
At today's unveiling, a crane raised an oversized black curtain to unveil the sculpture in front of one of the stadium's main gates, known as "Solar Man." A plaque explained that Solar Man was to showcase "solar power technology, football and art."
The plan also includes two electric-vehicle charging stations in the lot where the solar panels are located, and eight more charging stations in an adjacent lot. NRG said the solar installation, the largest in the NFL (at one of the league's largest stadiums), will produce up to two megawatts of electrical capacity – enough to provide up to 20 percent of the stadium's power on game days and to meet the building's needs on non-game days. (You can see a timelapse video of the installation here.) "One of the really innovative things that NRG has done is show how solar power can be integrated into an existing structure," said NRG spokesman Stephen Morisseau.
NRG owns the installation and will sell electricity back to the team, Crane said. He declined to disclose the project's price tag, saying "that's competitively very sensitive information." Crane said the cost of such installations has dropped but that "it takes time to recover your money."
NRG said it has a nine-year agreement with the team that could be extended.
This Sunday's "Solar Bowl" game with the Cardinals will promote the project and is scheduled to include appearances by former quarterbacks Joe Montana and Doug Flutie, and other retired NFL players.
Published September 15, 2011
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia (Planned)
Illustration courtesy SolarBlue and Philadelphia Eagles
When the Philadelphia Eagles announced their plan to ring Lincoln Financial Field with eighty 20-foot (6-meter) vertical wind turbines last fall, the manufacturer heralded the project's "strong iconic appeal." "Renewable energy can also look like a piece of art," said Scott Weinbrandt, then chief executive of Helix Wind of Poway, California, in a press release the company put out after the artistic renderings of the project appeared on Monday Night Football last November.
But Helix Wind said in its most recent quarterly report to investors that it is $47 million in debt and has insufficient capital and personnel to fulfill orders and Weinbrandt, no longer at the helm, is now suing the company for breach of contract.
The Eagles would not detail the reasons for delay in their plan to make their stadium energy self-sufficient, announced in November 2010. "I know the project is still a go," said Zeiger, the team spokesman. "The goal is to get as independent on energy as we can be."
Under the venture, as originally unveiled, the Eagles contracted with SolarBlue, of Orlando, Florida, to install the wind turbines and about 2,500 solar panels in a bid to make the facility "the world's first major sports stadium to convert to self-generated renewable energy," as the company says in a release on its website. The $30 million project also included a 7.6-megawatt cogeneration plant, which could run-according to NRDC-on biodiesel or natural gas. The team and SolarBlue said the project would provide more than 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity over the next 20 years, more than enough to meet the stadium's needs.
The Eagles, whose "Go Green" slogan is a play on the team's primary color, have been working on environmental issues for years with Hershkowitz and the NRDC. Under team owner Jeffrey Lurie, they have reduced energy consumption at the stadium by 50 percent and spearheaded a major recycling program.
But the Eagles' energy plan included at least one risky technology choice. "Small wind turbines are more expensive and produce less energy relative to their size than big turbines," says wind energy expert Paul Gipe, an industry consultant. "This is a limitation of the physics." Not only such rooftop installations less cost effective, they typically get less wind than anticipated because the building itself interferes with the air flow, he says.
Neither the Eagles nor SolarBlue would respond to further telephone messages or emails regarding the project, leaving the venture's current status as uncertain as who will win this season's Super Bowl.
Published September 15, 2011
Latest Energy News
Several aging coal plants are being reconfigured to burn natural gas.
Whatever Congress does, the proposed pipeline faces obstacles.
Meeting the targets will require huge economic changes in both the U.S. and China that could be politically or socially unpopular.
The Big Energy Question
Join the debate over whether we should view natural gas as a transitional fuel that eventually gives way to renewables, or whether it is blocking the way forward.
From better mass transit to a stronger mix of renewable energy, what is the most important thing we can do to make cities smarter when it comes to energy use?
As shipping and energy activity increase in the region, what do we urgently need to learn more about? Vote and comment on the list.
The Great Energy Challenge
The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.