When, in 1996, the German soccer club SC Freiburg dotted the roof of its Dreisam Stadium with solar panels, this was considered rather bold and exotic. Across the rest of the nation, the Southern German initiative met with polite bewilderment. Back then, sustainability, energy saving schemes, and emission reduction were still rather alien to Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga.

The stadium in Freiburg, photo: Andreas Schwarzkopf (Own work), [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
The stadium in Freiburg, photo: Andreas Schwarzkopf (Own work), [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Fast-forward a decade or two, however, and almost all professional German clubs have switched to environmentally friendly technologies. Take Vfl Wolfsburg, where the soccer pitch is irrigated with water from a nearby canal, Hamburg’s HSV, which keeps its field at just the right temperature with waste heat, or Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, home to Europe’s largest rainwater reservoir. Meanwhile, clubs in Dortmund, Nuremberg, and Kaiserslautern retrofitted their roofs with powerful photovoltaics – the Weser Stadium’s solar roof even amped up Werder Bremen’s power output to an impressive 750,000 kWh. For a prime paragon of all things green, however, look no further than FC Augsburg: Since 2009, the club’s stadium has been completely CO2 neutral – still a rarity on the global soccer circuit. Here, two groundwater heat exchange pumps keep things nicely temperate all year round – cooling pitch and buildings during the summer while adding welcome warmth throughout the chilly winter months.

The stadium in Augsburg, photo: FC Augsburg
The stadium in Augsburg, photo: FC Augsburg

Yet German pro soccer is just one example of modern stadiums that not only offer great views and mod cons, but also impressive environmental measures. Clubs have grasped that green thinking means breaking the mold and looking beyond tried-and-tested solutions. After all, sustainability starts long before the groundbreaking ceremony, before the stadium actually takes shape. Throughout the prior planning process of the arena, its support structures, access roads, and parking, clever developers can cut many superfluous emissions at the stroke of a pen. How to shorten the fans’ distance traveled? How to seal off a minimum of natural ground? What might be the most efficient way to connect the stadium to public transport? Although some of these questions might sound incidental, they constitute key planning issues: Fan travel – to the match and back home – accounts for 80 percent of any stadium’s overall ecological footprint.

The stadium in Bremen, photo: Maßstab
The stadium in Bremen, photo: Maßstab

A holistic view and approach that pays off: Beyond offering organic hotdogs, the amount of waste involved should also be part of the equation. And while reducing restroom water use sounds great, it makes even more sense to ensure that this water is treated and returned to the cycle as soon as possible. Naturally, soccer supporters should not freeze in their seats, yet smart heating rerouted from the turf’s waste heat can save a lot of energy. International experts are impressed with the way German stadiums tackle this issue, especially Augsburg where clever measures save approx. 750 tons of CO2 emissions per year compared with conventional stadiums. Interestingly enough, Augsburg’s original blueprints were quite conventional and involved two large gas boilers. Until a new, bold plan arose – one that involved close cooperation with the local energy provider: pumped cooling using local groundwater. Ten meters down, they found a usable source and have been using it for heating and cooling ever since. The stadium’s proud technical director, Markus Gladys, adds that “everything we do and everyone involved is very environmentally conscious – from management right down to the groundkeeper.”

Olympic Stadium Berlin, photo: Mark Ahsmann (Own Work), [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ]
Olympic Stadium Berlin, photo: Mark Ahsmann (Own Work), [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Germany’s current trendsetter status when it comes to refurbishing or redesigning large arenas can be traced back to the 2006 World Cup celebrations. The numerous new stadiums and infrastructure measures required for the global tournament were built to very high environmental standards and designed for easy future retrofitting – unlike the many old and often rundown arenas in, for example, Italy.

Just how much large sporting events can set the pace for environmental renewal is currently on display in France, the host of 2016’s European Championships. Bordeaux’ new pride of place hints at great things to come: Designed by starchitects Herzog und De Meuron, the city’s new stadium and nearby parking structures will be covered in swathes of solar cells to make the site self-sufficient in terms of power. Bordeaux also spearheads another trend: It offers maximum flexibility to deal with variable visitor numbers and event types. After all, it doesn’t make sense to offer (and maintain) space for 45,000 if only 15,000 fans are expected – and the exemplary new Bordeaux arena will easily adapt to expected audience numbers, saving the club both money and power.

The future stadium of Bordeaux, photo: Herzog & de Meuron
The future stadium of Bordeaux, photo: Herzog & de Meuron

At the same time, this green stadium trend is not restricted to soccer or geographic boundaries. In the US, the Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles, lives and breathes green initiatives. The numbers make for impressive reading: 11,000 solar panels and 14 large-scale wind turbines keep the power running. And strategic signs posted near the entrance remind fans that “The only water wasted here is our sweat” while the rest rooms prompt people to “recycle your beer here and the plastic cups outside!” For the past decade, Philadelphia has pursued this “go green” initiative to save water, power, and waste. Or look to the Texan town of Arlington and its Cowboys Stadium. In an unusual move for an oil state institution, the club encourages fans to ditch the car. “We want people to leave their cars and come to the stadium on foot,” states local representative Pete Jamieson. A true culture shock for those used to riding all the way to the entrance. Not to forget Minnesota’s Target Field, boasting a hyper-modern rainwater reclamation plant for treatment and irrigation.

Cowboys Stadium, photo by bobbyh_80 (originally posted to Flickr as 20090929-_MG_3778), [CC-BY-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Cowboys Stadium, photo by bobbyh_80 (originally posted to Flickr as 20090929-_MG_3778), [CC-BY-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
In view of the huge diversity and range of initiatives on display, a golden age of green stadiums seems to be on the horizon. Ambitious new developments can no longer afford to skirt ecological issues – least of all if their management cares about the bottom line. After all, most decision makers know by now that energy-saving measures also burn less money. Those who encourage strict waste avoidance will not have to pay for later removal. And those who get their fans home quickly save on security overtime bills. And that’s not all: A peek into the think tanks of stadium planners reveals that this push towards more environmentally friendly sport arenas is only just kicking off. In future, sports will become even bigger – at a much smaller environmental footprint.

Text: Philipp Köster, editor in chief of “11 Freunde”
Header image: Melange/ photocase.com