They're still debating the pros and cons of renewable energy in Washington, D.C., but it's a slam-dunk for the owners of the Phoenix Suns.
Strategic marketing of renewable energy through sports brands may have reached a new zenith this month as the National Basketball Association's Suns became the latest professional sports franchise to tie its brand to environmental stewardship and renewable energy.
And what better symbol for the Suns than 966 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels installed atop the team's US Airways Center parking garage?
Steve Nash, the franchise's best-known face and one of the league's most admired players, "flipped the switch" on the PV panels March 5, fulfilling a personal goal he set several years ago when he returned to the Suns after a six-year stint in Dallas.
Nash, a South African-born Canadian citizen with a penchant for environmental causes, also lends his image and endorsement to regional utility Arizona Public Service as its primary pitchman for energy efficiency and conservation.
"The spirit of innovation and environmental consciousness shown by the Suns, APS and the city of Phoenix is something I'm proud to be a part of," Nash said of the solar array. "I've become very passionate towards environmental issues over the years, so it's great to know that solar power is now impacting my life both at home and here at work."
"At work" for Nash means the Suns' 18,400-seat US Airways Center, where the team has played for 20 years. The building's new panels will generate 227 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 20 game days each season, according to the team's website.
"We are excited to dedicate a project that was simply a vision back in 2008," said Suns President Brad Casper. "APS stepped up and helped make that vision a reality here at US Airways Center, powering the arena with clean, renewable energy, enhancing our commitment to sustainability."
The 'greening' of pro sports
The Suns are not alone.
Since the mid-2000s, more than a dozen professional sports franchises -- including some of the world's best-known brands -- have embraced renewable energy and other environmental sustainability projects. They are hoping to generate goodwill in their local communities, but also aiming at reducing their energy costs and carbon footprints, in some cases significantly.
Among the other franchises embracing solar power on their stadium sites are the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers and Denver Nuggets; the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins; and Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council's "Sports Greening Initiative," which works closely with leagues, franchises and sporting event host cities on environmental sustainability, such programs have reduced or offset more than 20 million pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent in just four years.
Allen Hershkowitz, a senior NRDC scientist and director of the Sports Greening Initiative, said that level of greenhouse gas offsets is no accident. Sports franchises and professional leagues, he said, have been more receptive to conservation, clean energy and climate change mitigation than most other sectors of the U.S. economy.
"Sports matters," Hershkowitz said in an interview. "People think that dealing with climate change is about reaching the auto industry or the [electric] utility industry, and that's true. But the sports industry is a $425-billion-a-year enterprise with a global supply chain, and its messages reach hundreds of millions of people around the world."
The messages resonate locally, too, and allow the issue of climate change to be carried to the broadest possible audience, since sports provides a common gathering place for people of all political persuasions. "When we get professional sports embracing renewable energy, that's a meaningful nonpartisan statement," Hershkowitz said.
A new kind of bragging rights
Moreover, the recent boom in sustainability efforts among pro sports franchises has set off a new kind of competition between franchise owners and facilities managers, where the coveted prizes are not only championship trophies but the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications and bragging rights over which franchise has the smallest environmental footprint.
Sports governing bodies have caught on, too. Major League Baseball, in a partnership with NRDC, asks every big-league team to measure energy consumption at its home stadium and report the figures to the home office, Hershkowitz said. The National Hockey League will soon begin a similar program.
The figures have not been made public, Hershkowitz said. But in the statistics- and standings-driven world of sports, there's little doubt that the data will hit the scoreboards.
"Sports teams are by their nature very competitive. They strive to be the best in every aspect of their operations," said Logan Gerken, a project architect and LEED design specialist at the Kansas City, Mo., architecture firm Populous, one of the nation's most sought-after stadium designers. "And they're finding ways to sell these aspects to their fans and their athletes."
Just ask the Kansas City Royals, a franchise that hasn't won a World Series championship in 27 years but now ranks among the MLB's best for "green energy" achievements. The recently remodeled Kauffman Stadium, which will host this summer's annual All-Star Game, is now adorned with 120 solar PV panels capable of producing an estimated 36,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
The blue-tinted, aluminum-framed panels lining the stadium's curved outfield wall are visible from most of the stadium's seats, something team officials and partner Kansas City Power & Light will promote as part of the game-day "Outfield Experience." KCP&L will staff an educational kiosk to educate fans about the solar energy system, stressing how solar energy benefits Kauffman Stadium and the greater Kansas City region.
A field day for green designers
And while other MLB franchises have installed solar panels on their sites, Kansas City's will be the largest in-stadium solar array in the major leagues, and its generation will be used directly by the stadium.
Kevin Uhlich, the Royals' senior vice president for business operations, said the array is in keeping with the team's commitment to make Kauffman Stadium "one of the most environmentally friendly facilities in sports."
Meanwhile, the Royals' American League rival Cleveland Indians, whose Progressive Field is just a few downtown blocks from windy Lake Erie, are preparing to install an 18-foot-wide "helix wind turbine" developed by a Cleveland State University professor atop the stadium's southeast corner.
The experimental "wind amplification" turbine, developed by CSU engineering professor Majid Rashidi to produce energy at low wind speeds, will produce just a fraction of the electricity used to power the ballpark. But it should help to build fan awareness of green energy production and aid the team in reaching its sustainability goals.
"We want to show that this experiment born here in Cleveland works in Cleveland," Brad Mohr, the Indians' assistant director of ballpark operations, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in October. "The goal is not just to have the turbine in the ballpark. It is to get them into urban areas where traditional wind power won't work."
Reducing the environmental footprint of a 40,000-seat arena or 70,000-seat stadium is no small feat, experts say, but neither does it have to be extraordinarily complex or cost-prohibitive.
Martin Tull, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency and conservation measures in sports at all levels, said some teams are reaping significant savings in facility operations and maintenance costs simply by turning off nonessential lights and incorporating zoned heating and cooling systems.
Others have made modest investments, such as replacing incandescent lighting at indoor arenas with light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures that consume less energy and have much longer operating life. An LED lighting project at the Staples Center in Los Angeles paid for itself in seven months through lower electricity bills, Tull said. In Seattle, meanwhile, the Mariners reduced by 88 percent the electricity consumption of their Safeco Field scoreboard by replacing an older incandescent bulb board with one illuminated with LED lights.
Raising the bar in Seattle
But advances in materials science, energy systems and green technology have allowed big venues to do even bigger things, said Tull, including in regions of the country where renewable energy resources are limited.
Consider CenturyLink Field in Seattle, home to the NFL's Seahawks and Major League Soccer's Sounders. With a seating capacity of 72,000, the stadium is among the largest sports venues on the West Coast. The stadium is a crown jewel of design inspired by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and it offers some of the most tech-savvy stadium experiences in the country.
Yet its latest hallmark feature -- 3,750 thin-film solar panels atop the adjacent CenturyLink Field Event Center -- isn't visible to most fans. Covering an estimated 2.5 acres, or 80 percent of the sprawling event center's roof, the panels are capable of generating more than 830,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, or roughly the amount consumed by 95 Seattle-area homes in a year.
Tull of the Green Sports Alliance said that kind of investment in Seattle, whose large number of rainy days make it a kind of anti-Phoenix for solar resources, sends a strong signal to franchise owners across the country that every sports stadium or arena can reduce its carbon footprint, whether through renewables or other efficiency and conservation measures.
"I think for new facilities, at this point, the bar has been raised pretty high to where the norm in new facilities is going to include these kinds of technologies and efficiency measures," Tull said.
"If you're a facility owner and you're not aggressively looking at the energy efficiency, you're losing money," he added. "And on the renewables side, there is a competition now for the best-in-class, high-performance facilities. If one [franchise] installs 8,000 solar panels, I guarantee you the next installation is going to be 8,010 panels. It's great to see that competitive nature there."
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