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September 26, 2011

U of M Wolverines Make 'Power Play,' Petitioning for Solar Panels at Stadium



The University of Michigan Wolverines intend to burn up the gridiron this season – and to generate some heat at their stadium, as well. More than 3,000 people have joined a campaign on Change.org calling for the school administration to commit to using solar energy at its football stadium –affectionately called “The Big House,” because it is the largest stadium in North America.

The campaign, created by the nonprofit Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, was inspired by growing NFL trend:  Since 2010, professional football stadiums have gone green – using solar panels and other renewable energy to generate electricity at lower costs.

In November 2010, the Philadelphia Eagles announced the installation of about $30 million of 2,500 solar panels, 80 20-foot-high wind turbines, and a generator that runs on natural gas and biodiesel–making, Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles’ home, capable of generating all of its own electricity.

In July 2011, the Washington Redskins installed solar power at their FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., in order to get a portion of their game-time energy from the sun and power the entire stadium during off times entirely with 8,000 NRG solar panels.

Just two weeks ago, the Seattle Seahawks announced that renewable energy would be used to power CenturyLink Field.  The 3750 solar panels will be made from thin-film photovoltaic material designed to capture sunlight in multiple ways. The panels will cover 2.5 acres and generate over 830,000 kWh of electricity. Although Seattle isn't the most ambient of cities, the project will not require direct sunlight, but can also capture energy via reflected and diffused sunlight as well.

However, despite a number of impressive efforts on campus to improve sustainability – including an initiative to use recycled caps and gowns at the 2011commencement – University of Michigan officials continue to resist efforts to put up solar panels, claiming the project would not be cost-effective. Office of Campus Sustainability Executive Director Terry Alexander says that the solar project would take 77 years to pay for itself – and that's without replacing the panels, which have a life expectancy of only 20 to 30 years.

While a group of students did a feasibility study two years ago and determined that the program would pay for itself in a mere 26 years while saving 776 tons of carbon dioxide; Alexander says that the students did the best they could with the information they had, but they vastly overestimated the usable space atop the stadium.

Activists hope the petition on Change.org will lead the University of Michigan to become the first big-name college football school to join in. The 5680-square-foot house was built in 1927 at a cost of $950,000 and had an original capacity of 72,000. To keep construction costs low, the decision was made to build a relatively small stadium, with “footings,” to facilitate future expansion. Today, attendance is up over 100,000, with a record attendance of 114,804 set just a few weeks ago, on September 9.

“The UM stadium has the potential to be the largest athletic venue in North America with solar panels, which is fitting with the University’s claim to be ‘the leaders and the best’,” said Monica Patel, policy specialist at the Ecology Center. “Even though the electricity generated won’t solve the climate crisis, it will go a long way in terms of solar energy education: Just think of the awareness raised among the 100,000+ fans there on Game Day, and millions of others who tune in. The move would also give real support to Michigan's growing solar energy industry.” The petition, addressed to University President Mary Sue Coleman, Athletic Director David Brandon, and Director of Campus Sustainability Initiatives Terry Alexander, is being circulated online. Supporters also plan to seek signatures at Michigan football games this fall.

To support the activists, visit the website and click on the petition. 


Cheryl Kaften is an accomplished communicator who has written for consumer and corporate audiences. She has worked extensively for MasterCard (News - Alert) Worldwide, Philip Morris USA (Altria), and KPMG, and has consulted for Estee Lauder and the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspapers. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell


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