Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Sports Rally Around Green Projects
AMERICAN sports are often an exercise in excess: fans consume large quantities of beer and hot dogs, stadiums with giant scoreboards and retractable roofs are surrounded by parking lots filled with thousands of cars. In many ways, they represent the broadest cross-section of consumer culture and America’s wasteful ways.
But the sports industry — from teams to leagues to stadium and track operators — is becoming more environmentally friendly. In just the last few years, several new arenas have been certified by the United States Green Building Council, and nearly a dozen other facilities have added solar panels. Teams like Seattle and St. Louis have ambitious energy-saving programs at their parks, and the United States Open tennis tournament composts a majority of its waste. Even Nascar, a sport built on gas-guzzling racecars, has introduced a program that includes the recycling of used tires, oily rags and more.
Like many businesses, team owners and event organizers realize that going green can save thousands and even millions of dollars a year, a priority in these recession-stretched times. But many of them are also generating new income from their cost-cutting measures by getting corporate partners, eager to align themselves with hometown teams going green, to sponsor projects like solar installations and recycling bins.
In the process, teams and event organizers are learning that environmental efforts are winning fans not just in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, but in less obvious states.
“You would expect it out of a California team, but not an Arizona team,” said Derrick Hall, the chief executive of the Arizona Diamondbacks, which has worked with Arizona Public Service, the local utility, to build a 17,000-square-foot solar canopy at Chase Field, the baseball team’s stadium in Phoenix. “It’s important to a number of companies. They want to know what steps we are taking, and they like to be associated with us and an environmentally conscious team.”
Even though the team is not required to recycle, the Diamondbacks have added 150 new bins for plastic and aluminum bottles in Chase Field and compost all the food and paper waste, helping keep 95 tons of material out of the garbage dump in the first nine months of the year. In 2008, the team added flushless urinals and hand dryers in the bathrooms, and vendors at the stadium now wear shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. To trim its electricity bill, which is several million dollars a year, the team closes its retractable roof earlier in the day to avoid having to turn up the stadium’s air-conditioners.
Like many teams, the Diamondbacks have received no public subsidies for their initiatives. Some measures, like distributing media guides on digital thumb drives, saved thousands of dollars in printing costs. Others, including asking employees to take public transit to work, were part of broader efforts to be greener organizations.
Either way, the initiatives were done voluntarily, not because of mandates from the commissioner’s office. Major League Baseball and other leagues, though, have been sharing best practices among teams and collecting statistics on energy and water use and recycling rates to create benchmarks. The National Hockey League also helps teams send unused food at arenas to local soup kitchens, an effort that that provided 165,000 meals last season and kept 105 tons of food out of landfills. The league has also started buying credits that restore wetlands for every goal scored during the season.
Skeptics say these efforts are a bandage. Stadiums produce tons of waste and use large amounts of energy, teams crisscross the nation on chartered jets and millions of fans drive to games in millions of cars. League officials acknowledge this but say it is all the more reason to promote environmental initiatives.
“You can’t duck it or deny it,” said John McHale Jr., an executive vice president at M.L.B. “But just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do something.”
Environmental activists applaud this marriage of bottom-line vigilance and civic-mindedness, not just because huge amounts of energy, food and other products are consumed at sporting events, but because teams and athletes are so influential in their communities that fans and companies may be more inclined to follow their lead.
“When you get teams looking for efficiency, it gets noticed more than when environmental advocates do it,” said Allen Hershkowitz, the director of the Sports Greening Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advises leagues and teams. “People expect it from us, but when it’s the Cardinals, it’s the heartland. It’s nonpolitical.”
The recent rush of projects was led off by the Boston Red Sox, which installed 28 solar panels on a roof above the first-base line in 2008. The project was modest: the panels replace about 37 percent of the natural gas needed to heat the water used at Fenway Park. Other teams took notice, though, because the Red Sox not only saved money, but relied on National Grid, the utility, for technical expertise and financing.
Suddenly, teams everywhere were unveiling green initiatives, or publicizing efforts that until then had been ad hoc and out of view. In 2008, at the depths of the financial crisis, Nascar appointed Michael Lynch as head of green innovation. In cooperation with racetrack operators and racing teams, he introduced a host of measures, including using hybrid vehicles as pace cars and the planting of 10 mature trees after every race. This year, Nascar switched to a 15 percent ethanol blend, which has attracted sponsors as well as critics who doubt its environmental benefits.
“It’s like a small-sized Midwestern town that comes together 36 times a year,” Mr. Lynch said of Nascar races. “If you want to show that something works, plug it in here.”
Race teams and track owners looking to lower their costs took the cue. Last year, the Pocono Raceway installed 40,000 solar panels on 25 acres, enough to power the entire facility. Brandon Igdalsky, the racetrack’s president, said the $15 million cost was paid without government subsidies. The track’s annual energy bill has been cut by $500,000, so Mr. Igdalsky expects to recover the cost of the panels in eight to 10 years.
“We don’t even get a bill anymore,” he said.
Many projects, though, are far smaller and less visible. When the owners of the New Jersey Devils built the Prudential Center in Newark, they spent an extra $1.5 million on a state-of-the-art dehumidifying system that let them keep the air in the arena dry and cool enough to meet the N.H.L.’s strict guidelines for maintaining the ice.
The system automated a process that has long relied on guesswork. To keep the humidity at about 30 percent for hockey, arena operators consider the temperature and moisture outside, the number of fans expected to attend and what time the game begins. They also factor in whether a basketball court or other flooring must be removed.
Teams without dehumidifiers typically run their air-conditioners early in the day at high levels to bring the temperature in the arena down to the low 60s. This offsets the heat from fans and the lights. But by turning their air-conditioners on full blast, they raise their electricity costs, because the rate that utilities charge their big commercial customers is based on the period of highest demand.
At the Prudential Center, hundreds of sensors in and outside of the arena help the Devils adjust dehumidifiers all day, eliminating the need to turn the air-conditioners on all at once.
“That’s where the energy savings come in,” said Jim Cima, the senior vice president of arena operations. Buildings without dehumidifiers, he said, “demand a lot of human judgment. They have to start their air-conditioners very early in the day and pray once the game starts that they are able to hold that temperature.”
The center’s system, Mr. Cima said, had reduced energy use by 22 percent, which in turn had reduced the payback time for the equipment to less than five years. But retrofitting arenas with dehumidifiers has proven to be costly, even in cities where lawmakers and the home team support environmental initiatives, so teams are finding other ways to cut costs.
“The one caveat is it has to make money,” said David Kells, the director of marketing at Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators, which instead spent about $100,000 on fast-opening loading doors to cut the amount of cool air leaving the building.
The improvisation is a reminder that when it comes to green measures, one size does not fit all teams. And because sports are so widely watched, fans are likely to take note for some time to come.
“The challenges that the leagues and sports organizations face are not unique; they’re the same ones that we face at home,” said Martin Tull, the executive director of the Green Sports Alliance. “It’s easy to point the finger at the large aggregators of people. But the challenge is the use of resources in general.”