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October 18, 2007

Solar Power: Front and Center During World Series

When the Colorado Rockies host their first-ever World Series homestand next week against their still to be determined AL foes, there will be flashing coming from more sources than the leather gloves of their pesky infielders. The team will also have a chance to flash the lights of their new solar-powered LED scoreboard. The project at Denver's Coors field is the first commercial-scale solar electric power system to be installed in a Major League Baseball park. As the result of a partnership between the Rockies and Xcel Energy, the system should produce more than enough electricity to power the scoreboard over the course of a year. The sleek SunPower solar modules are grid-tied and integrated with a flat-panel monitoring system that allows fans at the park to observe real-time system performance and scoreboard energy use (the same real-time data has also been made available online here). Thus far, the project has been a net exporter of 2200 kWh of electricity since the system was installed in April.

Not to be one-upped by corporate interests, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was eager to take some credit and quick to congratulate the Rockies for their leadership as he called upon MLB, the NFL and "stadium owners throughout the nation to follow the example we've set by deploying solar at Coors Field" (emphasis added). I am not completely certain who the "we" Ritter is referring to but, I suppose that last year's passage of a bill that doubled Colorado's renewable energy standard from 10 to 20%, Gov. Ritter is entitled to some credit-claiming. The renewable requirement has thus far meant that investor-owned utilities like Xcel have been eager to buy renewable energy credits and sign long-term power purchase agreements from nearly any energy provider.

Installed in April by Independent Power Systems of Boulder, CO, the project consists of an array of 46 high-efficiency SunPower 215 watt modules that cover what was a mostly open walkway below the bleacher section. In a bit of serendipity, the girders over the walkway happened to slope a perfect 36 degrees. "It's as if they designed the stadium for a 10-kilowatt solar system," said Tony Boniface, president of Independent Power. But, because the panels are in straight-away centerfield, the contractors had to conduct a "glare analysis" to ensure the reflections wouldn't blind batters. "We didn't want to give slumping hitters an excuse," Boniface said. Considering how the Rockies are playing and hitting the ball, the panels do not seem to be causing too much of a glare problem (at least lately).

Consider how much electricity a modern sports stadium draws from the grid to power the extensive infrastructures of lighting and climate control systems, cooking stations, hot water, refrigeration and (in Colorado's case) humidors. Now consider the light being emitted by the small scoreboard in the center of the first image as compared to the other sources of light in the first image. Skeptics might charge that the solar-powered scoreboard exemplifies greenwashing, as it is nothing more than an expensive billboard that creates the illusion of corporate and social responsibility, while masking the more difficult problems related to demand and consumption.

Part of me sides with the skeptic on this one, but I also see that this is not only a smart marketing move by all of the parties involved (especially if they buy adtime or if they are featured in one of those little side-line stories), but that it has some positive political and social effects as well. The high-visibility of the solar array, located in what is essentially a public good, combined with the interactivity of the installation educates people by allowing them to see the costs and benefits of renewable energy generation firsthand (Although I'll admit that I found a little humor whilst looking at the small scoreboard within the larger context of flashing lights, fireworks and thumping music).

[Note: My original intent was to post this on the day after the NL pennant-clinching game, but I needed a day to recover after a fit of revelry that kept us from returning home from the game until quite late.]

Photo Credits:
1. Tim Hurst
2. Independent Power Systems

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