Solar companies can score big with sports venue installations

Vaha Energy’s installation for the Los Angeles Lakers UCLA Health Training Center. Credit: LG

Solar contractors that can clinch sports venue projects get a great marketing advantage with the high visibility of these partnerships, but they’re often a considerable challenge even for the most seasoned installers due to aesthetic requests and massive energy consumption.

Vaha Energy learned this lesson firsthand on its installation for the Los Angeles Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center. (This Clevelander had to suspend her grief on losing LeBron during this conversation.)

The building had a large, unobstructed flat roof that would’ve been perfect for solar panels. But Vaha couldn’t put panels on it, because the Lakers wanted to instead use that space for its logo.

“One thing with a sports team is everything is about branding and logos, so there was marketing value to them to put [the logo] there that, to my understanding, was worth more than the value of the power offset,” said Geoff Tomlinson, CEO of Vaha Energy.

Los Angeles Lakers UCLA Health Training Center install. Credit: LG

The Lakers were after a LEED Platinum certification, a points-based green building rating system. Solar can add a considerable amount of points to a building’s tally.

Joseph McCormack, the Lakers CFO and senior VP of finance, said in a press release, “One of our goals as an organization is to be at the forefront of energy efficiency, and these panels further our commitment to sustainability.”

Tomlinson and his team were left with limited options to install enough solar to offset 16% of the building’s energy usage. The north and south sides of the building were available, but had some obstructions. Vaha installed what it could on those surfaces and then put the rest of the system on a pre-existing carport onsite.

“Thank god the carport was there,” Tomlinson said.

The architects had solar-readied the building by running conduit from the roof and carport underground into the electrical room inside. That preparation was crucial.

“It’s a brand-new building. We would’ve had to have torn up their parking lot to run conduit,” Tomlinson said.

Los Angeles Lakers UCLA Health Training Center install. Credit: LG

The job was further constrained by the fact that the Lakers did not want the solar panels to be visible to people below.

“They didn’t want to see the modules at all, so everything had to be back enough that it wasn’t visible from the ground-up,” Tomlinson said.

Because of these constricting factors, Vaha had to use high-efficiency panels to pull this project off. The company went with LG’s 72-cell modules to get the highest power density along with trusted name recognition.

LG made a flashy case study video to highlight the project and its high-profile sports partner and demonstrate how LG was able to fit a rather specific need for this complicated project.

“It really highlights how the panels that we provide and that efficiency meets the needs that others just may not be able to provide,” said Garry Wicka, head of marketing for LG Electronics Business Solutions.

Wicka and Tomlinson agreed that increased exposure for this high-profile solar install made it a great marketing opportunity, but the two still see sports venues as a niche market.

Sports install struggles

Hannah Solar’s installation at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Hannah Solar

Tomlinson said Vaha Energy has had talks with other sports teams after the Lakers install, but one challenge pervaded those discussions.

“A lot of these facilities have tremendous energy use. So even though, for example, with the Lakers, we covered as much real estate as possible, we’re only offsetting around 15 to 16% of their power,” Tomlinson said. “We were looking at another sports facility and even to counter like a quarter of their power, we had to cover every surface they had available.”

When Vaha Energy did the energy modeling for the Lakers’ new building, the team assumed it would be operating from about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Now that the facility is in use, it’s actually been operating nearly 24/7, with players coming in at all hours to practice.

Hannah Solar ran into different challenges when it was chosen to add solar canopies at the brand new Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The stadium itself is an angular, futuristic design of triangles. The triangles in the roof open up to make the stadium open-air.

The Falcons were primarily motivated by LEED Platinum certification like the Lakers, but the team also wanted the solar to be visible to fans below. Hannah Solar was contracted by Georgia Power to do the EPC work on the project.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium solar install. Credit: Hannah Solar

“The idea of how our look would fit in with the overall look and feel and the aesthetics of this major, unique stadium was always part of the design considerations from the beginning,” said Anthony Coker, VP of sales for Hannah Solar. Hannah Solar worked with the architecture company designing the stadium from the beginning to seamlessly incorporate solar into the overall design.

The project required a lot of customization. The largest array in this project sits atop the Falcons’ parking deck at 455 kW. Hannah Solar used RBI as its steel canopy fabricator and engineering team on this feature, along with Trina Solar frameless, glass-on-glass, clear-backsheet panels so sun could stream through.

Hannah Solar custom-designed the other canopies covering the security and administrative entrances and VIP and owner parking spots, and hired a local steel fabricator to create them. It used Lumos’s bifacial GS X modules for these other canopies. Altogether, there were many moving parts in this dynamic installation.

Coker said the eight-canopy, ~670-kWdc project was the most difficult solar project the company has ever worked on, but that Hannah Solar had to take it on.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium solar install. Credit: Hannah Solar

“We would definitely do it every time if somebody came to us and said, ‘You’re going to go solar on the most green stadium in the world and it’s in your backyard.’ Atlanta’s our headquarters. We competitively wanted that project and we would be honored to have it and we’d feel neglected if we didn’t,” Coker said.

High visibility advantage

The high visibility and large fan bases can make sports venue solar projects pay off for contractors, despite the challenges during installation. Winning one of these projects may mean winning a team’s fans too.

“More and more sports venues are embracing solar by adding to existing stadiums or incorporating in new builds. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we have 4.000 solar PV panels and can annually power nine Atlanta Falcons games or 13 Atlanta United matches,” said Scott Jenkins, general manager of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and board chair of the Green Sports Alliance, a group that leverages the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where people live and play. “We’re dedicated to positively impacting our community and showing fans that sports venues can make a positive environmental impact. As the popularity of solar continues to grow, so too will the sports industry’s incorporation of solar into their venues.”

North Carolina-based Power Home Solar (PHS) recently added solar to the parking deck at the Detroit Lions’ home base of Ford Field as well as on an equipment storage rooftop of the Lions’ training facility in Allen Park in an interesting partnership. According to Crain’s Detroit, PHS invested $1.5 million with the Lions over three years including panel costs and a sponsorship deal. The parking garage installation at Ford Field powers the parking garage lights and the Allen Park install helps offset some of the training facility’s electrical costs. PHS said it can’t disclose the size of the systems at Ford Field and Allen Park due to the NFL contract.

Power Home Solar’s installation on Ford Field. Credit: Power Home Solar

PHS does some commercial projects but is mostly a residential installer. This sponsorship investment was also a marketing tool for PHS’s residential sales in the Detroit area, allowing the company to tell homeowners who may be Lions fans that PHS added solar to that stadium. The installer is planning its next sports install projects with the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers.

“Really it’s bringing down that fence to where consumers usually are worried, ‘Oh am I being sold something,’ and we try to build that credibility by saying, ‘Hey look, we partnered with the Detroit Lions or the Cleveland Browns,'” said Jayson Waller, founder of Power Home Solar.

Although the tight design parameters and high energy consumption can make sports venue solar projects difficult, the contractors that make them work can enjoy high visibility and a prime marketing opportunity.

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