NFL’s Solar Power Race Stalls Even as Eagles Cash In

In April of 2013 the Philadelphia Eagles turned down the energy. Over the previous year-plus, technicians had covered the southern-facing exterior of Lincoln Financial Field and one of its parking lots with roughly 11,000 solar panels and mounted 14 helical wind turbines from the stadium’s top rim. All together they would generate about four megawatts of electricity annually.

The system produced nowhere near enough power to run the venue during a game or concert, but it fed enough electricity back into the grid to offset about one-third of the team’s total energy use per year. Over the last decade, the installation has added millions of dollars the team’s bottom line. Considering that math, going solar seemed almost too logical not to pursue. After all, many stadiums offer giant vertical surfaces and acres of parking lots exposed to the sun that often sit unused for 330 days a year or more. For Philadelphia, installing solar was stealing money while saving the planet.

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The Eagles’ array and turbines drew the attention of everyone from The New York Times to Popular Science, and a Philadelphia Inquirer story from the time hinted at a solar arms race among ultra-competitive NFL owners, quoting Eagles president Don Smolenski: “We’re trying to be leaders in this area, and if that inspires others to try and catch us … it’s one of those things where everybody wins.”

Ten years later, 18 teams have some sort of solar installation but most of them produce nominal amounts of power, and the Eagles still have—by far—the largest on-site solar array.

Getting Hot in Here

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of world’s leading climate scientists, showed that carbon emissions actually increased globally between 2010 and 2019, adding, “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”

In releasing the UN report, secretary general António Guterres called it, “a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

Between game day operations, travel, laundry and maintenance, teams and leagues could easily make huge reductions in their carbon footprints. Yet they haven’t, and that solar arms race Smolenski referenced never really got off the starting line. “Owners and executives have to get out of the mindset that this is just the way it is, and that we don’t have time to worry about it,” Baird Fogel, a partner at Eversheds Sutherland in San Francisco, who recently helped the Raiders sign a new energy deal, said in a phone call. “We have to come around to the idea that there is potential.”

The potential goes beyond the actual carbon reductions and money saved; it includes inspiring people to participate. Research on climate action by cognitive scientists has shown that people will join a movement and make personal sacrifices if they feel everyone is contributing. “Transformational changes are more likely to succeed … where benefits and burdens are shared equitably,” the UN report noted.

“The visibility of sports might be its biggest opportunity,” Scott Jenkins, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance said in a call. “Teams and leagues can use their platform to lead the charge away from fossil fuels.”

Jenkins also cited a 2020 Pew Center poll in which 63% of Americans said their community has been directly impacted by climate change, whether through fires, smoke inhalation, storms, flooding or drought. “At some point, climate change will affect sports, through cancelled events, athletes being unable to train outside or fans not being able to get to games,” he said. “For whatever reason, I don’t think we’ve sensed the threat.

Follow the Money

The Eagles introduced their Go Green sustainability program in 2003, after team owner Jeffrey Lurie decided to reduce the franchise’s carbon impact. The program started with basic recycling and grew to include composting food waste, buying carbon offsets for travel and sending out excess plastic so it can be melted down and used to make new items. Aluminum waste that used to fetch about $70 a ton from a recycler is now processed and bailed on site, allowing the team to sell it for $800 a ton or more.

The solar array costs the Eagles nothing because they don’t own the system—NRG does. The Houston-based power company (also the naming sponsor of the Texans’ stadium) installed the panels and has operated and maintained them since. The electricity produced flows into the grid where NRG distributes it to other users and gives the Eagles credits, which the team uses to buy back electricity generated at other solar and wind farms.

“An undertaking this big needs partners,” Norman Vosschulte, the Eagles’ director of fan engagement said in call. “We’re experts in putting on a show, not sustainability, that’s why we partner.”

Although neither party will reveal financial details, the deal between the team and NRG includes a fixed, discounted electricity price for the Eagles until 2030. That generates direct ROI, but the impact is broader. Because energy markets fluctuate, teams never know from year to year what their costs will be, forcing them to hold extra cash. “We used to set aside $250,000 a year for unexpected spikes, but we haven’t had to do that, and we’ve reallocated that money,” Vosschulte said.

The financial gains of going solar depend to some degree on the value assigned to the credits, which vary from state to state and even between utilities, although Jenkins argues that the numbers make sense in any scenario. “Some sustainability measures are cost-neutral and other generate ROI,” he said. “Teams should look at their energy bill and do the math. What they’re paying now is what it would cost to be carbon neutral.”

The Sports Sustainability Index, an annual survey of venue operators, found that 48% of respondents saw an increase in sponsorship after committing to a sustainability program. “Companies want to be associated with brands that are helping the environment,” said Fogel, who secured a way for the Raiders to run Allegiant Stadium on 100% solar energy starting this fall. “There’s a lot of good will associated with it, and that drives revenue.”

Especially as Gen Z comes of age and draws the focus of advertising, ticket sales and fan-gamification apps. In a First Insight poll, 75% of the TikTok generation said sustainability was more important than brand when making purchasing decisions, and a Pew Research poll found that 67% of Gen Zers considered addressing climate change the top priority.

Unlike the Eagles, the Raiders aren’t producing electricity on-site, but they took advantage of a Nevada law that allowed them to negotiate for energy on the open market. After engaging several companies, they cut a deal to buy power from Nevada Energy’s three massive solar farms, locking in a “great price for the next 25 years,” Fogel said, while striking a blow for the planet, especially since Allegiant sits in the desert and hosts dozens of air-conditioning-needy events every year.

“The stadium is a critical consumer of power buying in bulk on the open market, so there’s no reason not to use that position to negotiate better rates,” Fogel said.

Once the contract was signed, new sponsors followed, including some who’d never been connected to sports. “The deals are into the seven figures,” Fogel said. “It’s millions of dollars the Raiders hadn’t accounted for.”

The Raiders’ arrangement includes the team’s practice facility in Henderson, but management is now looking to add solar carports there. The installation would create another sponsorship opportunity while taking advantage of the hottest, sunniest months, when practice facilities generally see their highest usage.

And the carports would differ from the stadium supply in another important way. “Buying power from off-site renewable installations is great, but that energy would have been distributed anyway,” said Michael Craig, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “On-site systems actually produce new energy.”

What’s the Hold-Up?

Drive on I-95 south of Philly during the day and the matrix of black solar panels on the stadium jump out, but something else does too. There are acres of parking lots with no panels, and the wind turbines that once encircled the stadium rim are gone. Why? It turns out there are some hurdles to using renewables.

First, Vosschulte said, the turbines—which only generated enough daily electricity to power a blow dryer—were removed for maintenance and may be replaced by a new model or simply jettisoned. As for the lots, the Eagles would love to use them for more solar power, but they don’t have access to them. “Everything to the left is owned by Comcast [via the adjacent Wells Fargo Center] and everything to the north is the Phillies,” he said.

Often, teams don’t have the option to install solar because they don’t own the stadium or the land surrounding it. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home of the Giants and Jets, has a ring of solar panels around the top of the stadium that generates enough electric to power some accent lighting. As in Philly, NRG did the installation, but when asked why the teams didn’t opt for something more in line with what the Eagles have, the Giants referred all questions to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns the land around the stadium. (The Authority didn’t respond to interview requests.)

“Who owns the facility and the land changes the regulatory challenges,” said Vanessa Hostick, a sustainable design leader at HOK, an architecture and engineering firm that has built multiple sports venues around the world, including Mercedes Benz stadium in Atlanta, which has 4,000 panels that generate 1.3 megawatt hours of electricity annually.

Private ownership generally has the fewest restrictions, while government buildings are more heavily regulated, Hostick said, with sports commissions often falling somewhere between. “In any case, there are a lot of stakeholders, and they’re all going to have to be engaged.”

Those stakeholders include utilities and power companies, which have a vested interest in the outcome. As in the Raiders case, a large buyer can stabilize the market by ensuring demand, but in other situations such power production can undercut a utility’s profits, making it hard, they claim, to maintain the system.

“They’re concerns are just one more thing that has to be negotiated,” Hostick said. “To get these projects done you have to let go of the way things ought to be and work with the way things are.”

Beyond the red tape, there are physical challenges. The steel supports needed to mount panels over parking lots can be expensive, and the panels require periodic cleaning. Also, at least some portion of those lots have to remain uncovered for tailgaters in oversize vehicles. Of course, most commercial scale deals operate on the same model as the Eagles’ arrangement, in which the partner company takes on the expense, installation, maintenance and monitoring.

As for the buildings themselves, Hostick said, “Stadiums are funny. There are structural and access issues. Panels are not heavy, but they catch the wind like a sail. You have to reinforce the structure to withstand the force.”

Retrofits like the one in Philadelphia are possible, but it’s easier to implement solar on new construction. That has led many teams to focus instead on reducing demand, with LED lights, high-efficiency climate control systems, water-reduction equipment and recycling programs, what Jenkins calls the “low-hanging fruit” of sustainability.

“Over the last decade, we’ve seen stadiums built to be super-efficient,” Lindsay Arell, a principal at Honeycomb Strategies, a sustainability consultant for the live-events industry, said on a phone call. “The next wave will be opportunities for on-site production. Teams will be making investments in that.”

Racing to the Future

We’re still years away from the day when stadiums can generate enough energy to meet their peak demands, which can soar. The Eagles say their stadium uses 10 megawatts of electricity a year, but some NFL stadiums burn through 25 megawatts during one gameday. Multiply that by 10 home games, plus however many college games and concerts the venue hosts each year.

“You don’t build a church based on how many people show up on Easter,” said Michael Chanin, CEO of Cherry Street Energy, a commercial solar solutions company in Atlanta. “Even stadiums with on-site solar are going to need secure backup power that can meet their peak demands. That means the grid is going to be the backbone of the system for the foreseeable future.”

While the industry develops advanced infrastructure and back-up battery systems, the goal is to “put as much clean energy as we can into the grid,” Chanin said. “At some point we’re going to be all renewable. That starts with getting panels on every building that can support them.”

Technology will help. Thin film panels, sheets of solar cells applied to a flexible backing and attached with a strong adhesive, are lighter than standard panels and don’t need an additional mounting system. They’re also less efficient, but because they can form to any shape and almost become part of the structure, it’s usually possible to cover more surface area with them, which makes up the difference. And though they’re more expensive, they require less infrastructure, so costs roughly equal out.

“Everyone we work with is starting to look at them,” says Hostick, “and we’re proposing them on everything that goes out the door.”

The interest, in part, derives from a growing number of municipal laws that track either energy usage or emissions, assessing fines for overages.

The ultimate vision is a stadium that draws power to meet peak demands and pumps it back into the system while it’s idle. But stadiums offer other environmental opportunities, too. Mercedes Benz Stadium, Hostick says, sits in a flood prone area that’s also a food desert, so it was designed with a 2.1 million gallon stormwater management system to prevent run-off into the neighboring streets. And the harvests from its gardens are either used inside the stadium or donated to a community food bank. It’s part of a movement to make sports facilities “more than just an asphalt jungle,” Hostick said, “more of a park area and an asset for the community.”

Stuck in the Past

“The climate crisis presents both threats and opportunities,” Jenkins, of the Green Sports Alliance, said. “The threat is huge, to leagues, to society, but people don’t want to hear it. We need the decisionmakers to get in the game.”

His point is hard to ignore. Despite the technological advances and visions for the future, neither the Chicago Bears nor the Buffalo Bills, two NFL teams planning to build new stadiums in the next few years, seem to have renewable energy in their early plans for facilities that are likely to have at least 30-year lifespans.

Press materials and renderings of the new Bills building show no sign of solar, and an attorney who represented the Bills in their State Environmental Quality Review told reporters that the new facility, though smaller than the one it is replacing, would use more electricity and more natural gas. When asked directly about clean energy use in previous on-the-record interviews, both Bills and Erie County officials have declined to answer. Neither Erie County officials nor the Bills returned calls or emails seeking comment. Populous, the architectural firm designing the facility, declined to comment about the Bills project or the topic of renewable energy for stadiums. Terry and Kim Pegula, who own the team, made the bulk of their fortune through an expansive fracking operation.

“For whatever reason, not everyone is taking the climate seriously,” Jenkins said. “We need owners to get involved. To be carbon neutral on energy, save water and go zero waste would cost them pennies on the dollar compared to what they spend,” he said. “We’re not moving fast enough.”

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