Solar panels are slow to pay for themselves, and owners are putting their money in other energy-saving technologies that drive down costs
The Orlando Magic opens its season on Oct. 28 at the first new National Basketball Assn. venue that will earn LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Last month the NBA joined four other major U.S. sports leagues in announcing an initiative to encourage teams to use solar energy at their facilities. Yet the $380 million Amway Center's resource-saving features—more-efficient climate control, low-flow toilets, rainwater recycling, and preferred parking for hybrid cars—don't include solar panels. Why doesn't an arena on the cutting edge of sustainable design in the southernmost state on the mainland have a single panel? Solar doesn't pay.
"I don't think the return on investment has gotten to the point where it makes [solar] a reasonable addition," says Mike Wooley, who specializes in arena management for Populous, the city of Orlando's operational consultant for the Amway Center. "Owners are putting their money in other technologies, like water conservation toilets and energy management technology, that drive down costs."
Robert Rayborn, a project manager at Turner Construction, which oversaw the building of Amway, says that even if they had covered every available inch, solar panels would have had a negligible impact during the arena's peak demand periods. "You just can't justify to owners and city officials that there's an economic advantage," he says. Return on investment usually takes at least 10 years, according to Scott Terry, an electrical engineer with the design firm Smith Seckman Reid, which worked on Amway. "A lot of owners don't want to pay for that when they can upgrade their [luxury] suites."
Besides the slow payback, solar panels compete for space with revenue-generating corporate logos that are often splayed across arena roofs and reduce their load-bearing capacities—a prized commodity for concert engineers seeking to hang hundreds of thousands of pounds of sound and lighting gear from trusses.
Solar arrays are in place at only a handful of sports venues: AT&T Park in San Francisco, Coors Field and the Pepsi Center in Denver, and Progressive Field in Cleveland. These installations supply a small fraction of the facilities' power needs. (Fenway Park in Boston also has solar panels that help heat the park's water, providing 37 percent of the heating load, rather than produce electricity.) The Progressive array—1,300 square feet of panels mounted on a pavilion on the upper deck in 2007—cost $180,000 to install and has provided a total of 29,000 kilowatt hours over the past three years. Progressive uses approximately 17 million kwh per year, enough juice to power more than 1,500 American homes. "It's really a demonstration piece," says Cleveland Indians' spokesman Brad Mohr, noting the real-time meter on the park grounds that allows fans to monitor output.
The only sports venue in the U.S. with a solar installation that supplies at least 2 percent of its power is the Staples Center in Los Angeles, home of the NBA's Lakers and Clippers and the National Hockey League's Kings. The Staples Center's owner, sports and entertainment operator AEG, installed a 25,000-square-foot array in October 2008 at a cost of $2.3 million. The 1,727 panels supply 456,000 kwh of electricity per year out of the arena's demand for 21 million kwh. At 12 cents per kwh, AEG saves about $55,000 a year. At that rate, the array would take more than 40 years to pay for itself. AEG says that with the help of utility rebates and federal tax credits it expects to recoup the investment in 8 to 10 years.
The questionable economics haven't stopped everyone from taking the solar plunge. There are substantial solar arrays in the works at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, and Qwest Field in Seattle. For now, however, U.S. sports venues continue to draw almost exclusively from existing power grids.
Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council and the driving force behind the sports solar push, doesn't expect much to change soon. Still, he believes the small efforts under way can have an outsize impact. When Ronald Reagan became President, Hershkowitz notes, he removed the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House. "He did it because of a cultural message," Hershkowitz says. "So we see the alternative happening—solar panels on Fenway, on the Staples Center, and in Cleveland. We start to get a different cultural message."
The bottom line: Sports leagues are encouraging teams to go solar at their stadiums. So far, the return on investment isn't big enough to entice owners.