Football Stadiums: The Power Plants of Tomorrow

With the Super Bowl shining a spotlight on the NFL’s newest gridiron—Cowboy Stadium, in Arlington, Texas—fans of another stripe are cheering sustainable developments at Philadelphia’s eight-year-old Lincoln Financial Field. The operators of the Pennsylvania NFL stadium, where the Eagles roost, recently announced plans to go to “net zero,” meaning they will generate power needs through onsite sustainable or renewable sources.

“With proper design, stadiums and certain other building types can become net self-sufficient in power, or even generate extra power and income for owners,” reports Alan Locke, PE, founding principal of IBE Consulting Engineers, a nationally recognized sustainable mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) firm. “For those of us who have designed green systems, the initiative for the high-profile Lincoln Financial Field will be closely watched.” (Locke is not involved in the Philadelphia project, but has contributed engineering services to Milwaukee’s Miller Park Stadium, Seoul Dome in Korea, and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium.)

The term “net zero” is generally used to identify buildings that produce as much power as consumed over the course of a year. A net zero building might tap into the local utility grid when in full use, but delivers excess power back to grid during off-seasons or off-hours. In the future, stadium owners might actually derive income from power sales.

“What we have discovered is that with lower photovoltaic prices and with wind turbines, it is actually possible to go beyond net zero and move into net power generation, especially for larger structures that are less used, or used passively,” says Locke, whose MEP firm has worked for such architecture firms as Gehry Partners, Morphosis, Hodgetts + Fung Design and Architecture, HOK, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Behnisch Architekten, and CO Architects. Football stadiums are ideal in many ways to become power sources, instead of power sinks. “Stadiums are often empty—running at full operations for more than 60 days a year is a rarity,” says Locke. “The large surface area and building height of a typical stadium means that solar and wind power may be practical, with just some accommodation in the tax and regulatory picture.”

Many states and jurisdictions have adopted provisions mandating utilities buy all surplus power offered by green facilities, at fair market rates. “It more often makes sense to invest the design and construction costs to produce a sustainable, energy exporting facility if the local utility buys the extra net power,” says Locke. “Stadium owners or others can then tread with more confidence in the financial and environmental playing field.”