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Greening the Super Bowl? What the NFL should REALLY do to reduce the big game’s eco impact.

Source: Rocky Mountain Institute

Super Bowl Sunday ranks number one for American TV viewership, rates as one of the top five days for pizza consumption in the U.S., and ranks eighth for beer consumption. But here’s a surprising stat where it ranks far down the list: energy consumption.

Fans that watch together save energy together

While the game itself has a sizeable energy impact (more on that shortly), for the millions of Americans watching from the comfort of their TV sets at home, it’s another story. Last year, more than 111 million Americans tuned in, making the 2012 Super Bowl the most-watched television event in U.S. history. According to data from General Electric, Americans consumed 11 million kWh of electricity watching the event. That may sound like a large number, but actually, all that football-watching actually reduced energy consumption.

Opower analyzed the energy use patterns of 145,000 households on Super Bowl Sunday and compared it to any given Sunday last winter. The results were … intriguing. On the West Coast, energy use during the game dipped to five percent below similar Sundays (and at times, reached 7.7 percent below), and remained 3.7 percent below average even hours after the game. On the East Coast, the during-game energy dip averaged 3.8 percent over the course of the game.

Why? TV pooling. With people focused only on watching the game, and communally congregating at friends’ and family members’ houses, most TVs, ovens, and other appliances were turned off. The corresponding reduction in the nation’s game day energy bill amounted to no small piece of change: $3.1 million.

That’s all well and good, but what about the impact of the game itself?

Geaux Green with a dose of Faux Green

Last year’s Super Bowl—for which the NFL purchased 1.5 million kWh of renewable energy credits (RECs)—was declared the “greenest on record.” This year, Super Bowl XLVII is hoping to take that torch. But as you’ll see, when the New York Times asked, “Is there a green side to the Super Bowl?“, it turns out the answer is a resoundingly wishy-washy “sort of.”

For sure, there are plenty of feel good projects associated with the big game. Hike for KaTreeNa will plant some 7,000 trees throughout host city New Orleans. Second Harvest Food Bank will collect excess prepared foods from some 50 Super Bowl-related events and funnel them to area soup kitchens and shelters. The Green Project will take used materials from the Super Bowl, such as temporary carpeting, and sell them back into the community diverting them from landfills. And another initiative aims to install 80,000 energy-efficient light bulbs for free in residences throughout the Big Easy.

I don’t want to be a Negative Nelly, and I do want to give credit where it’s due, but many of these have the feel of green vanity projects with good PR value for the NFL. Admittedly, some divert what would otherwise be waste toward useful streams, and some will benefit the greater community of New Orleans, but they have little to do with fundamentally reducing the impact—especially the sizeable energy impact—of America’s most-watched sporting event.

Like last year, there are again energy credits, this time carbon offset projects instead of RECs. In particular, a landfill gas collection project in TX, methane capture project on a dairy farm in MI, and forest conservation project in CA—all certified via Climate Action Reserve—will offset 3.8 million pounds of CO2 emissions associated with the Superdome, convention center, team hotels, and travel for coaches, players, cheerleaders, and other team support staff.

The Super Bowl’s Host Committee, Entergy Corporation (the local utility), and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions are partnering to implement such efforts under the banner of Geaux Green. But, to me at least, it has the decided feel of Faux Green.

I can’t help thinking that such offsets take the tone of “forgive me Father for I have sinned,” with a dose of atonement. The offsets are a penance to “buy” one’s energy consumption sins away. If we assume two pounds of CO2 per kWh of electricity generated from coal, then Super Bowl XLVII’s 3.8 million pounds of carbon would equate to 1.9 million kWh of offsets, some 400,000 more than last year’s 1.5 million kWh of RECs. But wouldn’t a more effective approach be to invest in energy efficiency first—reducing absolute emissions—and then purchase offsets for the remainder?

Learning lessons from green stadiums

Though the Super Bowl itself may be an exercise in energy consumptive pomp and circumstance, some exciting examples abound of individual stadiums and pro teams taking real steps to reduce their impact, and it’s a growing movement.

In 2011 the Stadium Managers Association unveiled the SM Energy Bowl; 20 stadiums took part, with the top NFL venue—MetLife Stadium—reducing its energy use by more than 13 percent that year. The Green Sports Alliance has been a major force. And last year, the White House held a conference on the greening of sports, while the Natural Resources Defense Council released its “Game Changer” report in association with its Greening the Games initiative.

Historically, notes a Duke University study, stadiums have focused on visible efforts such as recycling, and only later have realized the untapped potential of energy efforts. Yet, stadiums spend up to $2 million each annually on energy, representing up to 30 percent of their annual budget. In U.S. commercial stadiums, some 27 percent of that energy is for lighting alone—parking lots, concourses, field lighting. Notes Duke, adjustments in how the lighting is run (when, how long, with occupancy sensors) and upgrades (such as swapping out halogens for LEDs) could together yield savings on lighting energy and costs better than 50 percent.

Major stadiums are finally tapping into that energy efficiency gold mine. To date, 15 pro sports facilities—one of which is the NFL Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field—have achieved LEED certification. Meanwhile, the Alliance to Save Energy recently published a list of the top five most energy efficient football stadiums.

At the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, they decreased energy use 21 percent 2009–2010; they’re currently installing more than 2000 solar panels plus vertical axis wind turbines. At the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field at Mile High, between the 2002-03 and 2010-11 seasons, the team reduced its annual electricity usage by a whopping 6 million kWh, largely through lighting retrofits.

Again, why couldn’t the Super Bowl demonstrate similar energy efficiency returns, rather than simply offset its consumption?

Steps the NFL could REALLY take to green the Super Bowl

First and foremost, the NFL should spend its money on energy efficiency upgrades in host facilities. The energy savings—and the ROI—are potentially substantial. For example, in 2009 alone the Broncos spent $140,000 in lighting investments that yielded $147,000 in annual savings (less than one year ROI), with energy savings of 1.4 million kWh per year. That’s roughly equal to the one-time RECs the NFL bought to offset energy consumption at Super Bowl XLVI. Had the NFL invested in efficiency efforts instead of credits or—like this year—carbon offsets, they could reap annual cumulative avoided carbon emissions far beyond the one-time payment and savings, plus a fast ROI, after which the NFL could pass along the subsequent financial savings to the host stadium in an energy performance contract scenario.

Secondly, the NFL could harness the energy dissipated in football tackles and other on-field collisions. Timothy Gay, a physicist at the University of Nebraska and a former collegiate football player for Caltech, is the author of Football Physics: The Science of the Game. He calculated that if you added up all the collisions between offensive and defensive lines, all the open field tackles, and other players’ kinetic energy dissipated over the course of a game, it adds up to 40,000 horsepower-seconds per game. That’s 8.3 kWh per game. Multiplied by 332 games in an NFL season—including preseason, regular season, and playoffs—that totals 2,756 kWh of electricity, enough energy to power a home in southern CA or Maine for nearly half a year, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Alright, so that second suggestion is tongue in cheek. But seriously. Some 60 percent of Americans describe themselves as sports fans. If the games can go green—and the fans do too, in turn—the potential positive impact is huge. But that will require strong sports leadership, and when it comes to the Super Bowl, the NFL’s Geaux Green effort could—and should—geaux further. As for me, I’m just going to watch the game from the comfort of a friend’s Super Bowl party. My house will be energy quiet, and I’ll be busy TV pooling, knocking back a few brews, and reducing my impact, even as the Super Bowl searches for better ways to reduce its own.

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