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MetLife Stadium is now adorned with a ring of solar panels that can change color. (Photograph courtesy NRG)

NFL Season Opener Under the Solar-Powered Lights

When the reigning Super Bowl champions kick off the first game of the season Wednesday against the Dallas Cowboys, they’ll do it under a new solar ring around the top of MetLife Stadium, lit up in New York Giants blue.

The NFL’s biggest stadium, which is also home to the New York Jets, is debuting a high-profile push toward renewable energy with a ring featuring 1,350 solar panels, which can turn blue or green, depending on which team is playing.

“I think it’s really going to emerge as sort of an iconic physical element” for the stadium, said David Crane, chief executive officer of NRG Energy, which designed the ring. “I actually saw it the first time in person on a Continental Airlines jet, from seat 42A. It’s very, very impressive — it’s actually more impressive from the outside of the stadium,” he said.

Together, the panels generate 25 times the power needed to run the LED lights that come to life at night. The excess power is used to service the rest of the stadium. In all, the solar power system generates 350,000 kilowatt hours — enough to meet approximately 10 percent of the stadium’s power needs on game days.

And it’s not NRG’s only new renewable energy installation this season.

Farther north, at the home of the Giants’ Super Bowl rivals, the New England Patriots, construction is still under way on a solar canopy and set of rooftop panels at Patriot Place, an outdoor shopping and dining center that’s adjacent to Gillette Stadium. The canopy, which also offers cover for patrons, and the installation that now sits atop a Sleepy’s Mattress store, add up to 3,000 solar panels. The combination is expected to generate 1.1 million kilowatt hours a year — about 60 percent of Patriot Place’s electricity usage.

Although NRG debuted a stadium solar project last year — an array 8,000 of panels in the parking area at the Redskins’ FedEx Field in Maryland — this year’s projects have taken on a higher profile because they’re at the homes of the teams who faced off in the last Super Bowl.

Other stadiums have gotten in on the renewable energy act, too: the Seattle Seahawks installed a 2.5-acre solar array at CenturyLink Field last year; and the Philadelphia Eagles, who are now working with NRG, are working to make Lincoln Financial Field “the greenest facility in the National Football League,” owner Jeffrey Lurie recently said.

Of course, the companies affiliated with these efforts don’t always make it to the end zone. The Seahawks’ array was installed by the now-bankrupt Solyndra, and part of the Eagles’ green efforts suffered a hiccup when the vendor for planned rooftop wind turbines at Lincoln Financial Field went under as well. Neither team was derailed by the industry snafus, but they are a reminder of the risks inherent in betting on a new energy strategy.

NRG’s projects are part of its “icon strategy,” where the company looked for well-known structures in the United States that were “more horizontal construction — and it didn’t take us long to get to the NFL stadiums,” said Crane. “They’re big, they’re cool, they’re usually surrounded by big parking lots,” which lend themselves to solar installations.

Crane declined to reveal specific price tags for the projects, but said they tend to run in the “several million” dollar range.

And how long does it take for a stadium to recover those costs with energy savings?

“In terms of the return on the investment, we’re used to getting a return over a fairly long term in our industry,” Crane said. “Any investment we do, we calculate over a 20 year term.”

But he says solar isn’t as expensive as it once was.

“The price of solar panels has dropped precipitously,” said Crane. Most of the costs at the stadiums are associated with their highly stylized looks and the installation work that involves. “You can’t do computer-driven LED lighting and achieve the same price point as you can for lining up solar panels in desert.” (Which is what many of the company’s lower-profile installations involve.)

“On one level, we know that people who are going to football games are going to football games to look at Tom Brady, they’re not going to look at our panels on the roof,” Crane laughed. Still, the hope is that “fans will look at them and say, ‘my team is doing the right thing.’ It’s really about raising awareness with the fan base.”

Crane hopes to continue on to a second phase at each of stadiums, possibly including solar panels in MetLife’s vast parking lot, and a wind turbine is under consideration at Gillette.

He’s also keen to install more of the company’s electric vehicle charging stations at stadiums, which was part of the FedEx Field project and a priority for NRG.

And don’t be surprised if next season brings more NFL teams onto the renewable energy playing field.

“The NFL’s a very competitive place — and we’d like to be associated with some one-upmanship,” Crane said.