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Sporting Venues Embrace Renewable Energy

"If you want to reach Americans, go to a baseball game."

Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is on a mission to push sports leagues and teams toward environmentally friendly practices. “Thirteen percent of Americans follow science, 56 percent of Americans follow sports,” said Hershkowitz.

With hundreds of millions of patrons and billions in revenue each year, the industry has developed a unique and robust platform capable of spearheading powerful change. And Hershkowitz hopes he can leverage that platform to raise awareness about environmental issues. And one of the best ways to tackle an industry is to start with the venue.

On the Right Track

The word NASCAR may not send thoughts of environmental stewardship running through one’s mind, but head to the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania and you may have a change of heart.

The Pocono Raceway solar array sits on 25 acres and consists of 39,960 solar panels with a total generating capacity of three megawatts (MW). Powered entirely by renewable energy, the raceway is home to the world’s largest solar power facility at any sporting venue. Even on busy race days, it provides more than enough power for the entire facility.

Venue President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky said it offsets about 3,100 tons of carbon dioxide each year and people are beginning to notice.

“We had a lot of fans that called us and said I’m coming to you guys now instead of such-and-such a track because of what you’re doing there,” said Igdalsky. “Vendors and sponsors have also been really supportive of it.”

Since Pocono’s solar array went online, another NASCAR venue, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California has also switched on a solar facility. And the racing organization isn’t stopping at just a few solar panels: NASCAR has pushed ahead on a number of green initiatives, an important step for a sport that inherently features a substantial environmental footprint.

Mike Lynch, who heads up NASCAR’s Green Initiative, is excited about the progress that’s being made. “There’s a lot of meaningful activity in the green space,” said Lynch. “And we’re just getting started.”

Widespread Adoption

While NASCAR is making major investments in sustainability, they’re certainly not the only sports league that has turned toward more environmentally friendly practices.

Solar power is catching on as a way to cut footprints and drop electricity bills around the world. One of the biggest solar arrays outside of Pocono Raceway is on a stadium built in Taiwan for the 2009 World Games.

In the U.S., iconic Fenway Park in Boston was among the first to put solar panels on its roof as a way of heating water without using natural gas. Other teams, including the Cleveland Indians, the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks, and the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers are now getting some portion of their power from solar arrays.

“We put together the solar guide because right now 72 percent of all the energy supplying every baseball, football, hockey, and basketball stadium and arena in the country comes from fossil fuel, and less than two percent come from wind or solar,” Hershkowitz said.

But the NRDC’s decision to partner with various leagues isn’t just about specific footprints; it’s about disseminating the message, and letting the environmental mandate trickle down the supply chains.

If all of Major League Baseball starts asking companies — say, Pepsi, Chevrolet, or International Paper — to make environmental improvements, they will start to listen.

A Big Win for Solar

Although the desire to become more sustainable certainly exists, massive venues and organizations can find it difficult to significantly reduce an energy footprint. For example, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles hoped to install solar panels and wind turbines around the rim of their home at Lincoln Financial Field by the start of the 2011 season, but little progress has been made.

Or take one of the biggest sporting spectacles in the world: the Olympic Games. A quick look at the London 2012 Games sustainability report [PDF] released in 2011 reveals the goal of getting 20 percent of all power needs from on-site renewables. The goal’s status? “Target not achieved.”

Still, setting such an ambitious goal represents tremendous progress for the sporting world and a solid hope for the future. And with visibility and messaging representing foundational goals, getting the average sports fan talking about solar power is a big win.

Illustration by Ryan Chapman.

Dave Levitan is a journalist focused primarily on energy and the environment. His work has appeared at Yale e360, OnEarth, and IEEE Spectrum, among other places.

This article was originally published on Ecomagination and was republished with permission.

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