Special Series

Greening The Big Ten: University of Minnesota, Taking The LEED


By Elyssa Emrich

When you think of Minnesota, you might think of hockey or cold winters, but most likely, you don’t think of Green Champions.

Well, think again because the first LEED certified football stadium, college or pro, belongs to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

The Golden Gophers paved the way for green football stadium design when they decided to make the move from the Metrodome, which they shared with the NFL’s Vikings and MLB’s Twins, for 27 years, to the state of the art, on campus TCF Bank Stadium, which opened in 2009.  The stadium seats almost 51,000 fans for football.


TCF Bank Stadium

View from the student section at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, the first LEED Certified football stadium (Photo Credit: Gopher Hole)


Garnering LEED certification for the stadium was a part of the university’s 2003 strategic plan to integrate sustainability into their core values.  In fact,  LEED certification is now considered for every new construction project on campus. Sports architect Populous, and Minneapolis-based general contractor Mortenson teamed with the university to design and build a LEED Silver stadium.  LEED guidelines have been updated since TCF Bank was designed and constructed.  The Minnesota athletic department is working towards LEED re-certification based on the new requirements.

While the LEED re-certification process is ongoing, what can be said is that TCF Bank Stadium excels at many of the operational features needed to maintain that status; these include energy, transportation, cleaning, water conservation, and waste reduction.


A year after TCF Bank opened its doors to fans, the Minnesota athletic department conducted an energy recommissioning (i.e. audit) of all of their athletic facilities that yielded $412,000 worth of potential energy-savings. Since the athletic department pays 100% of athletic facility energy costs, they see significant benefit to using smart grid technology to closely monitor their energy use and to help them reduce it.

Currently, they are working on a project to install LED foot-candle lighting in the stairwells of TCF Bank Stadium. The new system will use sensors to adjust the light levels based on the activity level:  The steps will be lit minimally when the stadium is not in use and brightly when crowds arrive for an event.



The university made public and two-wheel transit a priority for the new stadium.  Following its opening, construction of a second light rail line in Minneapolis began called the Green Line.  Scheduled to open in the spring of 2014, the energy efficient trains will pull up next to the stadium. The Green Line will connect campus to both downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis and the airport. One thousand bike racks were also set-up in front of the stadium to encourage fans to bike to the game.

Mpls Green Line

Minneapolis Light Rail Green Line stop at TCF Bank Stadium, scheduled to open in time for the 2014 season (Photo Credit:  Elyssa Emrich)



Teaming with Tennant, another Minneapolis-based company, U of M is also leading the way with innovative cleaning techniques. Electricity-charged cleaning (blue-cleaning) only uses one chemical (Orbio) for all surfaces. This simplified solution not only reduces the number and use of toxic chemicals, it also has become easier to train the cleaning staff which experiences high turnover since many are student employees. The result is a cleaner, safer working environment.

Water Conservation

TCF Bank Stadium is busy—it hosts 300 special events per year (concerts, conferences, weddings, etc.),–and so it uses a lot of water.   The university thus aimed to create a stadium that is aesthetically pleasing and comfortable while also being very efficient in terms of water use and irrigation. This led Populous to include rain gardens in its landscaping plan. In fact, TCF Bank Stadium won the 2009 “Public Rain Gardens” Award!

The system starts with a rainwater roof. Porous pavement captures the water and filters it to the garden of native plants such as wildflowers and grasses.  Any additional water is stored in a large vortex that is filtered via Minneapolis’ storm water treatment facility.  Eventually the water flows back into the Mississippi River.

Waste Reduction

From a modest beginning in 2009 (composting bathroom paper towels), Minnesota has consistently grown its waste reduction efforts at TCF Bank Stadium.  In fact, they got close to zero-waste status this year and expect to get there in 2014.  From there, it’s on to making the entire Minneapolis campus zero-waste.

As I’ve mentioned in each one of my posts, it is very interesting to analyze the sustainability approaches of each Big 10 athletic department. While Minnesota and Ohio State are both working towards zero-waste, the schools are taking different approaches. Per my Ohio Sate post, part of the food waste sorting process at the Horseshoe (aka Ohio Stadium) is “front of house” at student-patrolled waste stations. The Gophers, on the other hand, are keeping all sorting at the back of the house and relying on a single waste stream to lead them to zero-waste. The reasons behind back-end sorting are 1) it’s lower cost and 2) facilities management wants to keep things clean and less cluttered in the concourse areas where the fans are.  So they eliminated the need for two times as many containers.

Food services provider Aramark, well known for its waste-management-based sustainability program, has been been a big help in the quest to make TCF Bank Stadium zero-waste.  Before there’s food waste, food must be eaten.  Aramark has made a point of offering fair trade, organic and local food choices to Gopher fans. All Aramark concession stands use compostable products and they guide their subcontractors to consider compostable alternatives as well. Hopefully, strong waste reduction guidelines will be written into future contracts with Aramark subcontractors, so that compostables will be a must rather than merely a consideration.

Currently, the zero-waste program ends at the stadium perimeter and does not include the tailgating area. The university’s/athletic department’s long-term vision is to make the tailgating areas zero-waste and eventually to extend zero-waste to the entire campus. Preliminary actions have been taken in tailgating areas: staff members have implemented a system in which they canvass a portion of the tailgate area with trash bag and recycling bags in hand.  Results from the big Wisconsin/Minnesota rivalry game showed Gopher fans were winning off the field,
as 78% of waste collected was recycled, 9% was compostable, and 13% was trash.  [On a side note, while the Gophers fans won off the field, MY Wisconsin Badgers won the battle on the field!  That makes it 10 straight years that the Badgers have held on to Paul Bunyan’s Axe!]


Elyssa & Paul Bunyan's Axe

GreenSportsBlog’s Elyssa Emrich (l) proudly wields Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which goes to the winner of the Minnesota/Wisconsin game.  Wisconsin won this year’s Border War to retain the Axe for the 10th straight year.  Minnesota can take some consolation from their strong greening performance at TCF Bank Stadium. (Photo Credit: Elyssa Emrich)


Next season, frequent attendees, such as season ticket holders, will be encouraged to reduce waste and recycle in the tailgating areas. The idea is to establish a small number of influencers who will spread good environmental behavior virally to their friends.  My two cents:  Great idea, but to maximize its effectiveness, the athletic department should provide incentives to those season ticket holders to recycle (i.e. Meet/Greet with players/coaches, free parking, etc).

Finally, I’m happy to confirm that Minnesota-Nice does exist during my interviews with sustainability coordinators Shane Stennes and Dana Donatucci and TCF Bank Stadium Operations Coordinator, Jeff Seifriz. They were generous with their time and opinions on investing in zero-waste and more generally in green initiatives. While it is true, in the short-term, zero-waste is not saving athletic departments money, the athletic department and university do value the environmental benefits of reducing waste and keeping their waste stream clean and simplified. Green jobs are also created in the process (i.e. sorters). As time goes on and they move along the learning curve they will be able to determine the best and most efficient practices.

The long-term vision is, as these best practices are put in place the procedures will become really clean and simplified. We will get to a point where it isn’t more costly because it is so seamless and as the industry scales composting costs will go down,” says Shane Stennes.

And Dana Donatucci added to the conversation, “It is best to make the investment early so you can learn early and you can ride out the cost curve. This way you can analyze from the backend and be able to set goals with measurements and find out what is really the best way. It does pay off because you can make the necessary changes after analyzing results.”

I thought Shane put the Gophers’ approach to greening perfectly when he said, “you have two options; #1) you can start small and grow, or #2) you can start [big and] complex and [hope] everything gets easier. We chose the first option.” For Ohio State and Minnesota, Option 1 is a winning strategy. I will be on the lookout for an example of an Option 2 that proves successful.

Finally, the Gophers will be facing a challenge/opportunity that the Buckeyes will not (nor anyone else in the Big Ten for that matter):

The Minnesota Vikings will be renting TCF Bank Stadium in 2014 and 2015 while their incredible new (and hopefully green–GreenSportsBlog will let you know!) home is under construction and the Metrodome is demolished (the Vikings stadium will open on the Metrodome site in July 2016).

This will more than double the amount of games at TCF Bank thus more than doubling the amount of waste the stadium generates.  As of right now, there are no set plans as to how operations at the stadium will address zero-waste and other green initiatives during Vikings games. Folks from TCF Stadium, U of Minnesota Athletics Department and the Vikings are talking so there are prospects for zero-waste NFL games at TCF next fall.



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  1. What an uplifting post! So nice to see that sport, having fun and sustainability can go hand in hand.

  2. Thanks for the comment, ACFlory! I’m not sure how big university sports are in Australia but in the US, it’s a huge deal. The Big 10, the league that GSB reporter Elyssa Emrich covers, actually comprises 11 major midwestern universities (including Minnesota and 3 Elyssa has written about–Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan), and 1 elite private university (Northwestern) near Chicago. Next year, the Big 10 will add 2 east coast public universities, the University of Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey (my alma mater). Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, with 50,000+ seats is actually one of the smallest Big 10 stadiums. Michigan and Ohio State boast capacities of over 100,000–and every seat filled for every game. Yes, a huge deal and a huge opportunity for innovative, high profile green solutions. Elyssa, a proud Wisconsin grad, is writing a series that will eventually encompass all of the Big 10 schools (OK I’ll write about Rutgers but she’ll take care of the rest).

  3. […] out our earlier GSB posts to see what Wisconsin–my alma mater, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota have been up to). Penn State is looking to take the Green-Sports model further than its Big 10 […]

  4. […] sustainability organization (Michigan Student Athletes for Sustainability or MSAS),  LEED certifications for the University of Minnesota’s new stadiums and Penn State’s focus on fan sustainability engagement.The main reasons athletic […]

  5. […] to the athletics departments on this list that have made a big point of greening their games, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, for their thoughts on the Koch deal. Green groups on those campuses will also be […]

  6. […] that in mind, you have athletics and sustainability departments at schools like Minnesota and Wisconsin promoting their greening efforts–which are legit, btw–among students, […]

  7. […] The 2014 All-Star Game was at Target Field in Minneapolis so it makes perfect sense for the University of Minnesota to have been involved. What about 2015, when the All-Star Game was in Cincinnati, or this […]

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