Eagles retool green-energy plan

Posted: October 14, 2011

Amid all the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles, the team also has a whole new game plan . . . for renewable power.

After nixing an ambitious plan announced a year ago, the Eagles are now in the final stages of planning what they contend will be the largest solar array in the National Football League, and perhaps larger than at any other major sports venue in the United States. The cost is expected to exceed $30 million.

The panels will top the stadium's roof portions, coat the south-facing facade, and form a roof over some of the parking spaces. (Note: The Eagles say the arrays will not interfere with tailgating. Indeed, they may provide shelter on rainy days.)

The valet parking area will be covered by panels that swivel, tracking the sun.

The panels will be the workhorses, but the team also plans to install small wind turbines atop the stadium above the two end zones - if only as a statement.

"They'll be iconic, they'll be visible, they'll be cool," said Don Smolenski, the team's chief operating officer.

Deja vu all over again?

In November, the team proudly announced a different plan - a $30 million project that would include solar panels and wind turbines, but with the bulk of the power coming from a cogeneration plant that could run on biodiesel or natural gas.

The team said that the project would make Lincoln Financial Field the greenest stadium in the world - although that was debatable - and that the project would be finished by opening day in September.

That also turned out to be overly optimistic. The home opener came and went. No solar panels. No turbines.

For weeks, the team rebuffed requests for an update.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins unveiled what they said was the biggest solar installation at an NFL stadium - 8,000 panels, built in partnership with the Princeton solar company NRG.

The Seattle Seahawks also launched their new 3,700 solar panel array - touted as the largest in Washington state - on the roof of a building next to their field.

Now the Eagles have outlined a new plan - and what went wrong with the old.

The workhorse of the old plan was the cogeneration plant - the solar panels and wind turbines were more for pizzazz - but that quickly became "a very complex element," Smolenski said.

The challenge with sports venues is that they're atypical energy users. Most buildings that add renewable power have a fairly steady power draw. They size a system for that draw, and any extra that gets put into the region's overall power grid is generally a small amount.

But at 7.6 megawatts, the Eagles' cogeneration plant would put a lot of power at once into the grid on days with no games - a balancing act that required technological changes because the grid and its equipment, from wires to transformers, can take only so much.

"It was envisioned to be plug and play," Eagles spokesman Rob Zeiger said. "It turned out to be plug and rebuild and rewire."

The team realized the plant would have to be downsized, and once that happened, "it impacted the economics of the overall project with our partner," SolarBlue in Florida, Smolenski said.

"So we shook hands with SolarBlue and we went back to the drawing board," he said. "They were a good partner. It didn't work. Sometimes that happens."

SolarBlue did not respond to a request for comment.

The nitty gritty of the new plan still has to be worked out. But it depends heavily on solar panels, which will have a peak capacity of 3.25 megawatts, less than half the power of the original cogeneration plant.

It is expected to outshine the Redskins' two megawatts, and nudge past the Pocono Raceway's three-megawatt array.

Smolenski said it would produce an estimated 3.7 million to 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, about a third of the stadium's total power usage.

The plan also calls for a small "combined heat and power" unit. Generally, about 60 percent of the energy used to generate power is lost as heat. But these efficient units use waste heat to heat water that, in this case, will be used in the stadium.

The Eagles are working with a new partner on the project. Smolenski said he could not yet name the company other than to say it was "a huge player in this space."

The new plan is projected to cost slightly more than the old, but the financial arrangement is largely the same. The partner will build the project and own the equipment. The Eagles have a 20-year commitment to buy power back from the partner at set amounts.

The team also expects to save money on the deal, but how much is unclear.

Smolenski said the Eagles had set out "to push the envelope" on renewable energy. "By going through that exercise we learned a lot, we were exposed to a lot."

Allen Hershkowitz, director of the sports greening initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental nonprofit, praised the team for its tenacity and willingness to zig when zag was no longer working. "I think they've moved to a better plan."

He called the Eagles' example "enormously informative and helpful to other stadiums and arenas who are trying to figure out how to do this. What it shows is that even the most committed green teams have to reconsider plans as they're being implemented. We're breaking new ground here."

He said the project overall "confirms the mainstreaming of environmental issues in what is arguably the most popular professional sport in the United States by one of the most prominent teams."

Hershkowitz began working with the Eagles' greening efforts in 2003, and progress since then "has literally helped change all professional sports' approaches to the environment."

The new estimate for finishing the project: August 2012.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace

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