When it rains in Seattle — which it does just about every other day — the water landing on the roof of Climate Pledge Arena is collected and used by Zambonis to make ice for the hockey team.
That ice is actually smoother to skate on than municipal water used in most hockey rinks.
In Atlanta, when Falcons fans buy beer or pop and recycle the can, Mercedes-Benz Stadium cashes in the aluminum and uses the money to build new houses through Habitat for Humanity.
And in Minneapolis, waste generated during Vikings games is reused, recycled or composted — and the rest is turned into steam that’s used to heat buildings in downtown Minneapolis. In 2018, when the stadium hosted Super Bowl LII, 91 percent of the trash the 68,000 fans threw out went to a compost or recycling bin, rather than a landfill.
Those are just some of the ways professional sports stadiums and arenas — built with varying degrees of public funds — are going green. It’s in recognition that the facilities that attract tens of thousands of fans require a lot of energy and water and produce tons of waste. In response to climate change, a growing number of stadiums have been engineered to reduce their carbon footprint, the amount of water they use and the amount of garbage they produce on event days.
So, as the Buffalo Bills negotiate with New York and Erie County to construct a new stadium in Orchard Park, will they follow suit? Could Josh Allen take the field in 2026 in a sustainable or even net-zero stadium?
At this point, it’s an open question. The Bills have so far said little about the new stadium’s sustainability. Team spokespeople didn’t return multiple requests for an interview.
There are some signs, however, that say Pegula Sports and Entertainment may follow industry trends and build a sustainable stadium. For example, the Pegulas hired the architects at Populous to lead the project, the firm responsible for several highly sustainable venues including the hockey arena in Seattle.
In addition, a county official confirmed that sustainability measures are part of the new stadium’s environmental review process. A memorandum of understanding and an environmental assessment form state water-saving and waste-reduction features will be included.
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The Pegulas, however, have made their billions from the fracking industry, not an eco-friendly business, and Populous builds to a client’s desires, as all architects do. The firm, for example, previously led the renovations of Highmark Stadium for the Bills, a project that included no sustainability measures.
Experts told Investigative Post that building green is good for the bottom line, too, meaning the Pegulas could save money over time if they build a sustainable stadium.
Stefanie Young, vice president of technical solutions with the U.S. Green Building Council, said builders have begun to realize that building sustainably is “a no-brainer.”
“It makes business sense,” she said. “Like, why wouldn’t you want to invest and implement strategies and technologies that are going to save money down the road, in addition to having a positive environmental and social impact?”
What might the Bills do?
Given the trend of building sustainable venues, the Bills have no shortage of examples to look to when designing their new stadium.
And because stadiums and arenas that are deemed sustainable are often formally LEED certified through the U.S. Green Building Council, there are volumes of information available about how to build sustainably — everything from using renewable energy to where to place windows and light switches.
Becoming LEED certified — short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — has become a trend in the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field are all LEED certified.
Earning LEED certification is easier if builders start the process early in the planning stage, said Young, with the U.S. Green Building Council.
That’s what planners of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta did, she said, and the owners were able to achieve all of their water conservation goals.
“That means they’re using low flow fixtures in their restrooms, they have an efficient cooling tower system, they have a really efficient irrigation system, which obviously is key,” Young said. “They also manage 100 percent of their stormwater on site, so that’s a great example of how they’re not impacting that local infrastructure.”
The stadium also generates enough renewable energy on site, through solar panels, to power several Falcons games each year.
In addition, leftover food at the stadium is donated to charity after events.
Seattle sets the standard
The Seattle hockey arena takes things a step further.
Not only did the team preserve the original stadium’s roof — meaning it didn’t have to buy new concrete — the rainwater it collects from the roof helps create some of the best ice in the National Hockey League.
“The fluoride and other component parts in the municipal water supply don’t like to freeze, so they create these little indentations on the surface of the ice, which makes it a little rougher for people to skate on,” said Rob Johnson, the arena’s vice president of sustainability and transportation.
“Rainwater doesn’t have any of those components,” he added. “For us to not have to use that city municipal water supply only benefits everybody.”
Climate Pledge Arena is also paying to build a solar farm large enough to power the facility.
The arena also sells beverages in reusable cups which fans return after their use.
“If you look at a traditional building like ours, you would generate five tons of waste for every event,” Johnson said. “[But] because we’re diverting 95 percent of that waste away from landfills and to composting and recycling, we think we’re gonna save money over the long term with our waste hauling costs.”
The team also subsidizes public transit, covering the fare of fans who travel to games by bus or rail.
Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia has adopted similar practices.
Kitchen waste is composted or converted into biodiesel that the stadium can use. Cups are made out of corn, not plastic. And the team earns up to $1,200 per ton on the aluminum it recycles from beer cans.
Plus, the stadium includes 10,500 solar panels, enough to generate up to 40 percent of the electricity the facility needs. That’s the most of any NFL stadium.
The stadium has done smaller things, too, like installing sensors and timers for lights and the HVAC system, meaning those systems aren’t running when people aren’t using them.
Sustainability saves money
As for the Bills, Erie County Commissioner of Environment and Planning Daniel Castle said the new stadium’s environmental review includes some sustainable aspects, like low-flow water fixtures.
“Some of these issues such as water use, wastewater, stormwater management, energy use, transportation, etc. will be addressed in the [environmental] review, which we hope to be made public in mid/late October, followed by a public comment period and a public hearing,” Castle said in an email.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said that when the state finalizes the implementation plan for its new climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, constructing more sustainable buildings will become a requirement. Among the likely requirements, developers will have to eventually stop installing appliances that burn fossil fuels, the spokesperson noted.
Experts interviewed by Investigative Post agreed the Bills have a big opportunity in front of them — one that could save the team money.
“Even from a residential standpoint, you’re crazy right now if you’re doing a new build and you don’t look at solar and geothermal,” said Ryan McPherson, the University at Buffalo’s chief sustainability officer. “And I say quote-unquote, ‘you’re crazy,’ because even if you didn’t believe in climate change, you would reduce your costs.”
That happens through cheaper-to-produce renewable electricity, plumbing that reduces water volume, reduced natural gas use and lighter loads sent to the landfill.
“From an economic perspective, you’re saving critical funds,” McPherson said.
Savings also happen through less “sexy or fancy” means, said Young of the U.S. Green Building Council. They include controls on lighting and room temperature, signs encouraging people to recycle, and buying materials locally so they don’t have to be shipped as far.
Michael Bogucki, senior principal at the design and management firm Venue Strategies, said a stadium or arena’s biggest operating costs are personnel and utilities. That’s why, he and other experts said, building sustainably can help both the planet and the bottom line.
“If you can bring your utility costs [down], you know, water, gas, electric … if you can minimize that to the greatest degree possible, while at the same time showing a green emphasis, you win the game in both directions,” said Bogucki.
NFL team owners from coast to coast have taken that lesson to heart. Both Allegiant Stadium in Nevada and SoFi Stadium in California — the two most recently built NFL stadiums — have incorporated sustainability. Both stadiums have taken steps to reduce waste and conserve energy and water.
Young said while building sustainably takes effort, she expects the trend to continue. Maybe with the Bills, too.
“So it does take a little bit of legwork, but if you get in front of that, we find that there’s a huge amount of opportunity,” she said. “And a lot of folks, you know, want to be able to say that they had a piece in helping to develop such an iconic facility as a stadium.”