The GSB Interview: Kunal Merchant of Lotus Advisory, Bringing Green-Sports to Sacramento, Oakland and Beyond

Kunal Merchant occupies a fascinating perch in the Green-Sports world. A member of the Green Sports Alliance board, the Bay Area-based Merchant has a background in business, politics, and social enterprise. And as co-founder of Lotus Advisory with his sister Monisha, Merchant has guided the sustainability efforts on state-of-the-art green stadium and arena projects, from Sacramento’s Golden1 Center — the first LEED Platinum indoor arena in the world — to the nascent Oakland A’s ballpark project.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Merchant about his work on Green-Sports projects, with the Alliance, and where he sees the movement heading.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Kunal, I can’t wait to dig into your story which takes place at the intersection of sports, politics, and sustainability. Nothing juicy there…

Kunal Merchant: It has been a fascinating ride to this point, Lew. I came to the sports world from the political side, working as Chief of Staff for then Sacramento Mayor and ex-NBA All Star Kevin Johnson. I served in that role during his first term, between December 2008 and June 2012, which was a dramatic time. The Mayor took office right as the national economy was entering the Great Recession. Sacramento was particularly hard hit by double-digit unemployment and a foreclosure crisis. Morale was low, and right when the town thought it couldn’t get any worse, we found out that our beloved Sacramento Kings – the one and only pro sports team in town – wanted to leave town.

The team had been struggling both on and off the court for years, including several failed attempts to build a new arena to replace what had by then become the oldest and smallest arena in the NBA. The Kings’ ownership felt that their best shot was to start over in a new city, with Seattle being the most likely destination. It was a punch to the gut for Sacramento, and in the Mayor’s office, we knew that how Sacramento responded to this challenge would have implications far beyond sports for the city’s economic and civic identity.

GSB: So how did you go about dealing with the significant headwinds?

Kunal: That’s a topic for a much longer conversation! But, oversimplified, there were three key checkboxes on our “to-do list” to save the team: (1) prove that Sacramento was a viable NBA market; (2) recruit a new ownership group willing to buy the team and keep it in Sacramento; and (3) develop a plan to build and finance a new arena. The arena was arguably the most critical – and difficult item – particularly since, for a market the size of Sacramento, some form of public investment was going to be needed.

Taxpayers were understandably skeptical about putting public money towards a basketball arena. But after studying similar situations around the country, we in the Mayor’s Office concluded that, under the right terms and structure, we could deliver a public-private partnership for a new arena that would be a win for the Kings and for Sacramento. To get there, we needed to generate transformative economic and community benefits, something that was only possible if we used the arena to anchor the broader revitalization of our blighted and long-underperforming downtown core.

In that respect, Sacramento really reminded me of the Denver of my childhood in the 1980s. At that time, Denver was perceived as a classic “flyover city” by people on the coasts. But over several years, the community and city leaders pushed through smart and strategic investments that led to a positive change in the city’s economic and cultural trajectory. Things really took off in the 1990s, in part due to the energy generated by Coors Field, the downtown ballpark built to be the home of our new Major League Baseball team, the Colorado Rockies.

 

Kumal Merchant Headshot

Kunal Merchant, co-founder of Lotus Advisory (Photo credit: Lotus Advisory)

 

GSB: I remember visiting Denver during the late 1990s and saw how Coors Field had seemingly changed a whole neighborhood. Was the ballpark built by the team, the city or some combination? The reason I ask is that there are many studies showing that public investments in sports venues are not efficient uses of the public’s money. Where do you come down on that question?

Kunal: Great question. Like a stodgy and aging arena, I think the rhetoric around public financing for sports venues is in serious need of an upgrade. There’s way too much dogma on a topic filled with nuance.

In the case of Coors Field, the project was a public-private partnership, where taxpayers made a significant investment. As a local resident who saw that area before and after Coors Field, I would argue that the taxpayers’ investment paid off handsomely in catalyzing a true economic and cultural renaissance that continues to this day.

But the success of Coors Field doesn’t vindicate all forms of public financing. The reality is that every situation is different, and plenty of sports facilities – too many I would argue – receive public funding in amounts and terms that are truly terrible deals for the public. When we were developing the Kings arena deal, we studied up on the good, bad and ugly of prior public subsidy deals. And we were determined that any arena deal we cut with the Kings would protect taxpayers and generate strong economic and community benefits.

That process in Sacramento began by fighting to locate the new arena downtown, and resist temptations by some in town to “play small” and simply refurbish or rebuild at the old arena’s suburban location.

GSB: The old Arco Arena is north of the city, kind of by itself off of I-5.

Kunal: Yes. At the time it was built in the mid-1980s, that building size and location made sense. But by the 2010s, we had different civic imperatives around sustainability and urban planning. Beyond the economic appeal of a downtown location – analysts forecasted $150 million in new annual economic activity each year – we wanted the arena project to reflect the values of a community that cared deeply about the environment. So we set – and ultimately met – incredibly ambitious goals for green design, air quality, water efficiency, energy efficiency, transit, food, waste diversion, and so on.

GSB: What was your role in the project?

Kunal: My role evolved over the course of the project. At the start, I was the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, representing the Mayor and City in almost every facet of our work with the NBA, Kings, City and community to save the team and develop the arena plan. When the NBA voted to keep the team in Sacramento in May 2013, and approve the sale of the Kings to a new ownership group, I moved over to the team side as an executive focused on making sure we followed through on our promises to the community on the arena.

That meant finalizing the public process to approve the deal, negotiating key labor and community benefit agreements, and continuing to engage the community in this truly once-in-a-generation project. It also meant championing what became the most ambitious sustainability agenda of an NBA arena to that date, anchored around achieving status as the first-ever LEED Platinum indoor sports arena.

GSB: That’s quite a transition. How did working for a sports team differ from working in municipal government?

Kunal: Well, it’s safe to say that spending a Tuesday night at an NBA game is a bit more fun than at a City Council meeting! And I used to joke with friends – only half-kidding – that I could get more done chatting with various folks at a Kings game than I could ever do in one month at City Hall. There were obvious advantages to working in a private sector context in terms of speed, agility, and efficiency. But this deal was a true public-private partnership where both bodies were integral. What’s most powerful to me is that my spirit and purpose on this project never changed regardless of what my business card said; from beginning to end, this endeavor was always about doing something really big and historic and transformative for the people of Sacramento. And both the City and Kings wholly embraced that mindset.

GSB: What did you do after the arena took shape?

Kunal: As Opening Day for the Golden 1 Center got closer, I started getting calls from other folks in sports who were impressed by what we’d done in Sacramento and wanted to see if I could help out elsewhere. To his credit, then-Team President Chris Granger was extremely supportive, and I was able to transition from being a full-time employee to a consultant able to take on other work. As part of that transition, I launched Lotus Advisory with my sister Monisha as a strategy and management consulting firm focused on driving positive change at the intersection of business, government and community. Because of my background, I ended up specializing quickly on sports-related projects, while my MIT-educated sister took on high tech clients like Airbnb. In the years since, we’ve been lucky to work with an amazing range of clients in a variety of industries and sectors.

 

Kumal Merchant at Golden 1 Center

Kunal Merchant touring construction of the Golden 1 Center and the Downtown Commons in 2015 during his time as a Sacramento Kings executive. The $1.5 billion dollar project includes a LEED Platinum NBA arena, hotel, and retail and entertainment district that has been the primary catalyst behind the new economic and cultural renaissance unfolding in Sacramento’s long-struggling downtown core (Photo credit: Lotus Advisory)

 

GSB: What are some the sports projects on which Lotus Advisory has worked?

In recent years, we’ve done a lot of work in soccer and baseball. I was the Chief Strategist for Nashville’s successful 2017 bid to join Major League Soccer, where we went from being on no one’s radar as a viable soccer city to finishing first in a twelve city race for the next expansion slot. A huge part of our success was powered by the people of Nashville – whose pride in their city is as strong as I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Similarly, I helped lead and advise Sacramento’s bid to join MLS for several years, particularly in shepherding their downtown stadium development plan through the planning, predevelopment and approval processes. The heart and soul of that bid are the supporters of Sacramento Republic, the United Soccer League (USL) Championship¹ club that took the city by storm when it launched in 2014 and has woven itself deeply into the cultural fabric of Sacramento with remarkable speed.

Currently, I’m working closely with the Oakland Athletics on their plans to revitalize the Oakland waterfront with a new privately-financed ballpark district near the Jack London Square area. It’s a really gorgeous project with a strong spirit of sustainability and environmental justice.

GSB: Very cool! What’s the status of Sacramento’s MLS bid? I know they’re looking to get to 28 teams by 2021 or 2022. Cincinnati United began play this month as the league’s 24th club, with Miami and Nashville set to join next year and Austin in ’21. So that means there’s one more slot left in the near term.

Kunal: Sacramento is one of two cities considered to be favorites for the 28th slot. I know that I’m biased, but I don’t think the competition is remotely close. Sacramento’s MLS bid stands alone as arguably the most resilient, mature, and comprehensive MLS bid in league history. Since embarking on the MLS journey in 2014, Republic FC has checked all the boxes time and again: a die-hard fan base, committed corporate support, a fully-approved and transformational downtown stadium plan; and a credible and committed ownership led by a formidable combination of Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle and several local business leaders. MLS will be lucky to have Sacramento join its ranks and I’m cautiously optimistic that it will happen soon.

GSB: Good luck! When will the new stadium be ready and what are some of its green features? 

Kunal: Obviously the MLS stadium is contingent on entry into the league, but the stadium could likely be ready by either the 2021 or 2022 MLS season. As impactful as the Golden 1 Center is for Sacramento, the MLS stadium for Republic FC will be a game-changer in its own right.

The stadium will be built few blocks away from the Kings arena at a huge 240 acre site called the Sacramento Railyards that, when fully built out, will double the size of downtown Sacramento. The MLS stadium represents one of the first and largest major private investments in the Railyards in several decades, and will catalyze a historic wave of economic and community development. In terms of green features, the stadium will be another model of transit-oriented development, located a block from light rail, and a short distance by foot, bike, scooter, or rideshare from the rest of downtown. Republic FC has a terrific culture around local food and beer, so I’d expect some innovative sourcing strategies there as well.

 

Sacramento Republic MLS Stadium

Artist rendering of proposed Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Sacramento. The project will anchor an estimated $5B economic revitalization effort at Sacramento’s historic Railyards district (Credit: Sacramento Republic FC)

 

GSB: Turning to another long-running new stadium project, let’s talk about the Oakland A’s.

Kunal: The A’s have a truly visionary plan to revitalize the waterfront near Jack London Square through a new Major League Baseball ballpark. The project will be LEED Gold Certified and reflect a “ballpark within a park” theme, with an intimate 34,000 seat stadium nestled carefully into its urban surroundings. The ballpark is privately-financed and will anchor a new, vibrant waterfront district that will feature a mix of housing, including affordable housing, offices, restaurants, retail, small business space, parks and public gathering spaces. And the team is also showing tremendous leadership by leveraging the ballpark project to address longstanding environmental justice reform issues around air, soil and water quality faced by West Oakland residents for years.

 

Oakland Ballpark

Preliminary artist rendering for the proposed Oakland A’s ballpark near Jack London Square in Oakland. The project will be LEED Gold and reflect the A’s strong commitment to sustainable development and environmental justice (Credit: Oaklandballpark.com)

 

GSB: Add the A’s new ballpark to my sports bucket list. OK, before we go, let’s talk a bit about your work as a board member of the Green Sports Alliance. How did that come about?

Kunal: I’ve known and been a fan of the Green Sports Alliance since its earliest days, when Alliance leaders reached out to invite Mayor Johnson to the inaugural summit in Portland. The Alliance was hugely helpful in guiding my thinking on the Golden 1 Center, and I worked with the Alliance to help bring the Summit to Sacramento during the Golden1 Center’s inaugural season in 2017. I’ve continued to work closely with the Alliance since then, and at some point it just made sense to take on a more formal role. So, I joined the board last fall with a pretty important first project: co-leading the search for a new Executive Director. It was a fascinating process that yielded a terrific hire: Roger McClendon.

GSB: McClendon comes to the Alliance’s executive director role at a key inflection point in the Green-Sports movement. I like to say Green-Sports 1.0 — the greening of the games — is now almost if not quite a given. It was a necessary and obvious first step. But Green-Sports 2.0 — engaging fans, players and more to take positive environmental action, specifically on climate change — which is where I think is starting now, is a more complicated, heavier lift. What do you think?

Kunal: I totally agree. There are fundamental questions facing the green sports movement and the broader environmentalist community at the moment. The science around climate change grows more dire by the day, with the recent IPCC report advising that humanity has really just a handful of years left to aggressively decarbonize or face catastrophic consequences. So the cost of inaction is escalating. With that as backdrop, the Alliance is asking ourselves: what are we going to do? Our ethos has been to meet people where they are. Which means that if a league, an event, a team is aggressive on climate, we’ll support them. If they’re going slowly…

GSB: …Or not even talking climate at all?

Kunal: …we’re not going to push them too far beyond their comfort zone.

GSB: But doesn’t that imply that it’s ok for sports not to go fast enough? That seems risky at best.

Kunal: Well, it’s tricky. But here is a reason to be optimistic: things are impossible until they’re not. Looking at history, there are many social movements that looked bleak for years, or even decades, right until a period of rapid change that completely upended the status quo. I’m heartened by the younger generations — Millennials and Gen Zers — who will increasingly hold all institutions, including sports teams, accountable for the issue of climate change. The Alliance needs to be ready, and I think we’re taking important steps in that direction. If there’s one thing that I’ve come to appreciate deeply in my career, it’s that, with vision and leadership, sports can be an extraordinary platform for positive change. And on issues of climate, we can’t afford for sports teams, leagues, or fans to sit on the sidelines anymore.

GSB: With some well-timed and positive pushing from organizations like the Alliance, I’ll say. To be continued, Kunal!

 

¹ The USL Championship is the second-tier of North American professional soccer, one level below MLS.

 


 

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GSB News and Notes: Wind-Powered RVs at Tailgate Parties?; A Green Cactus League Partnership; Errant Golf Balls Add to Pollution of U.S. Waterways

Wind-powered recreational vehicles (RVs) could become a thing at college and pro football games. Arizona State University and the Oakland A’s launch a sustainability partnership at Hohokam Stadium. And golf balls hit into the oceans, lakes and more are a hazard for wildlife and water cleanliness. All in all, it’s a busy mid-week GSB News & Notes column.

 

WIND-POWERED RVs COULD BECOME TAILGATE PARTY STAPLES 

Drop in on the parking area of any SEC or Big Ten college football stadium on the Thursday before a big Saturday game and you will see dozens of RVs, filled with tailgaters, barbecuing, imbibing in adult beverages, playing touch football, watching TV and…promoting wind power?

OK, that last bit about wind power may be a stretch.

Or maybe not. According Michele Boyer, a retired writer and full-time RVer, mini wind turbines are now designed to be able to be mounted atop RVs.

 

RVs Penn State

A village of RVs stretch out to the horizon in the tailgate area before a Penn State University football game in State College, PA. Someday, perhaps soon, a portion of those RVs will sport wind turbines on the roof (Photo credit: visitpennstate.com)

 

Writing in the March 2nd issue of TripSavvy magazine, Boyer reports that Southwest Windpower, a subsidiary of Xzeres, a leader in the small wind turbine (45-80 feet high) market over the last 15 years, has gone even smaller, manufacturing a mini version that mounts on a large boat or RV.

The small size and rapidly declining cost has turned small wind systems into an economically viable option for RV owners, including, of course, those who tailgate. Many are now pairing small wind with small solar panel units to minimize the impacts of the intermittency problem — i.e. the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Solar and wind costs have each dropped dramatically over the last decade, with wind the cheaper option in many cases. “The cost of small wind has gone below five cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), about half the cost of solar power,” noted Boyer. “Installation and initial investment for an RVer are significantly less for a wind generator than for equivalent power-capable solar panels.”

Boyer does point out that, in addition to its intermittency, there are some drawbacks for RVers, including noise and dangers from electrical storms. 

That said, when I attend the Big Ten contest between the University of Iowa and Rutgers (the latter my alma mater) this September in Iowa City, I expect to see a windy, zip code-sized tailgate area, filled with RVs. And maybe a few will be topped by mini-wind turbines.

 

OAKLAND A’S MOVE TOWARDS ZERO-WASTE SPRING TRAINING, THANKS TO PARTNERSHIP WITH ARIZONA STATE

The Oakland A’s and Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability launched a partnership last month to help Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona move towards zero-waste during the 2019 spring training season. The goals are to increase operational efficiencies and improve the fan experience, all while moving Hohokam towards the 90 percent diversion rate threshold necessary to claim zero-waste status.

The A’s-ASU “Recycle Rally” program looks to build upon a similar program launched during spring training last year by ASU, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colorado Rockies — the two National League West rivals share the Salt River Fields ballpark at Talking Stick, Arizona.

 

 

Hohokam

Panoramic view of Hohokam Stadium, spring training home of the Oakland A’s in Mesa, AZ (Photo credit: Baseball Pilgrimages)

 

As part of the initiative, a group of 21 ASU students are analyzing Hohokam Stadium’s waste stream and operations to help the 10,500-seat ballpark become more sustainable during the six weeks of spring training. They are putting their detective caps on to find the most innovative, fan-friendly and cost-effective approaches that can increase recycling, reusing and composting. After the A’s ship out at the end of the month to begin the regular season, the students will produce a report that recommends the best ways to approach waste minimization for spring training 2020 and beyond.

“The A’s are proud to call Mesa our home away from home, and we want to do our part to promote sustainability and minimize our environmental impact at Hohokam Stadium,” said A’s president Dave Kaval. “We are excited to team up with Arizona State University on this initiative and learn how to reach our goal of becoming a zero waste facility.”

Colin Tetreault, a senior sustainability scholar with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, is directing the class of 21 “change agent” students as part of a capstone project. “The School of Sustainability is honored to hit a home run for sustainability and zero waste with the Oakland A’s,” Tetreault said. “This collaboration is an example of how sustainability can drive innovation, reduce costs and overhead, and increase the fan experience.”

 

GOLF BALLS CAUSE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN SOME WATERWAYS

I gave up golf about 20 years ago, in part because too many of my wayward shots found their way into water hazards. My retirement from the links took place before I became passionate about sustainability and climate change, so thoughts about the environmental hazards associated with my inability to keep the little white ball dry did not enter my mind.

My perspective has changed, thanks in part to “How Golf is Polluting Our Oceans,” a recent story by Dalmeet Singh Chawla in Medium. The scale of the problem is bigger than I thought: Per Chawla, one estimate suggests the annual number of golf balls sent to the bottom of waterways could be as high as 300 million in the United States alone.

 

Matthew Savoca

According to esitmates, hundreds of millions of golf balls are hit into the waterways of the U.S. every year (Photo credit: Matthew Savoca)

 

That’s almost one wet golf ball per person in the U.S.

Crazy, no?

From that staggering macro number, Chawla’s story zoomed in to the micro, focusing on the efforts of 18-year-old scuba diver Alex Weber to do something about the problem. Since spring 2016, she has collected around 50,000 golf balls from Carmel Bay, California, not far from the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links, site of the 2019 U.S. Open in June. 

To keep her beloved beaches pollution-free, she frequently carries out clean-ups to remove microplastics that wash up on the beaches from large ocean swells,” wrote Chawla. “One day in May 2016, Weber and her father decided to go free diving off the coast of their local beach. ‘What we came across was the entire sea floor was covered in golf balls,’ Weber recalls. ‘There were thousands of golf balls in every crack and crevice  —  I immediately felt sick to my stomach.'”

Her concern stemmed mainly from the toxins golf balls release from the bottom of oceans, lakes or bays, and the problems that poses for aquatic life. The solid core of a golf contain zinc oxide and zinc acrylate for enhanced the durability and flexibility. But both compounds are considered toxic in aqueous environments, and have been shown to activate stress responses in fish, algae, and crustaceans. Feeling responsible for cleaning up the mess that humanity created, the Webers continued collecting golf balls whenever they dove. 

Here’s more from Chawla: “Between May 2016 and June 2018, the Webers retrieved 50,000 golf balls in total, equaling around 2.5 tons of debris, roughly equivalent to the weight of a pickup truck. The father-daughter team have now co-authored a scientific paper, recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, describing the scope of the problem…Now known as the ‘Plastic Pickup Team,’ Weber and her father go on dives whenever the weather conditions allow, usually about six months out of the year. Sometimes, they spend up to 10 hours collecting golf balls.”

 

Alex Weber

Eighteen-year-old Alex Weber and her dad retrieve thousands of golf balls from Carmel Bay in Northern California (Photo credit: Alex Weber)

 

According to Matthew Savoca, a marine ecologist at Stanford University who co-authored the study with the Webers, around 10 percent of the collected balls were severely worn down. By calculating how much the balls had degraded, the authors predicted that the collected golf balls have given off around 28 kilograms of fragmented synthetic material to the oceans.

 

Robert Beck.png

Golf balls, unearthed from the bottom of the sea, in various stages of degradation (Photo credit: Robert Beck)

 

That said, and despite the Webers’ prodigious underwater efforts, golf balls represent a tiny percentage of the eight million tons of plastic humans dump into the oceans every year. And, as Robert Weiss, professor emeritus of polymer engineering at the University of Connecticut, remarked to Chawla, “the risk of leakage of harmful chemicals from golf balls is relatively low, partly because golf balls degrade slowly underwater.” 

But, per Savoca, in some locales —  in Carmel Bay, for instance  —  golf balls may be the most significant contributor of marine plastic. 

So what to do?

“The solution to our ocean pollution problem is not to take the plastic out but to stop the plastic from going in,” Weber told Chawla.

The researchers, along with the Pebble Beach Company, owner of several golf courses around Carmel Bay, are working with the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary   to identify possible solutions. PBC is already notifying golfers, directly and through caddies  that intentionally hitting balls into the water is prohibited. 

Other possible remedies include adding nets to prevent balls from landing in the water, training people to shoot more accurately (I wouldn’t bet on this one), and the development of biodegradable golf balls. On the latter, Albus Golf’s ecobioball®, biodegrades within 48 hours after hitting water, exposing an inner core consisting of fish food (brilliant, it says here!). Unfortunately, they don’t yet meet the exact requirements to be considered a golf ball by the U.S. Golf Association (USGA).

 

Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 12.55.10 PM

The biodegradable Ecobioball® from Albus Golf

 

But it’s a start.

 

 


 

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San Diego Padres and Sullivan Solar Partner on Biggest Solar Installation in MLB at Petco Park

On-site solar at sports stadia and arenas has become a “thing” over the past decade across all sports. Starting with the Colorado Rockies and Coors Field in 2007, Major League Baseball has seen its share solar-topped roofs and solar canopied parking lots pop up. Most of the MLB installations have been on the smallish side. That changes with the late March opening of the largest solar installation in the big leagues at Petco Park, a partnership between the San Diego Padres and Sullivan Solar Power.

 

The San Diego Padres are poised to flip the switch this month on the largest solar installation in Major League Baseball at Petco Park. In fact, the 336,500 kW system will generate more electricity than all of the solar systems in MLB combined. It is thus fitting that the groundbreaking Petco Park solar system is being built and installed by Sullivan Solar Power, one of the most innovative and inspiring solar companies in Southern California if not the entire country.

The inspiring part of the Sullivan Solar Power story comes from the company’s namesake and founder, Daniel Sullivan.

A lifelong San Diegan, Sullivan was a 27 year-old electrician in 2004. Concerned about what he saw as a war-for-oil in Iraq, especially with the perspective that comes with being a new dad, and sensing an opportunity with a clean, domestic form of energy, Sullivan went to his boss and suggested the company get involved with solar. The boss said no at first and then, perhaps tired of his persistent employee’s repeated requests, finally relented — to a point — by saying, “if you want to build it yourself, go ahead. But we aren’t changing our focus to doing solar.”

Sullivan said something to the effect of “to heck with that” and founded his own company, Sullivan Solar Power.

 

 

 

Daniel Sullivan

Daniel Sullivan, founder of Sullivan Solar Power (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)

 

Problem was, he had only $2,500 in the bank, a pickup truck and some tools.

So Sullivan started by living and working out of the garage of one of his first customers. Fast-forward a couple of years and things had improved somewhat: Sullivan Solar Power had four employees had leased office space. And Sullivan was no longer living at the garage. Instead, he was living at the office — hiding that fact from his colleagues — and showering at the gym.

But, the company’s mission — to fundamentally change the way we make electricity — along with its commitment to quality work, its educate-the-customer-about-solar ethos, its robust lineup of community service engagements, and its use of American-made panels began to resonate in Greater San Diego. So, too did Sullivan’s money back guarantee to customers. According to Tara Kelly, Sullivan Solar Power’s director of community development, “When Daniel started this company 14 years ago, there were less than 100 solar power systems on our local grid and it was much more expensive to go solar. Daniel, an electrician by trade, was so confident that his systems would pay off for customers; he offered to pay them if the panels didn’t produce as promised. The result? About 50 percent of our customers come from referrals.”

 

Tara Kelly Sullivan Solar Power

Tara Kelly, Sullivan Solar Power’s Director of Community Development (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)

 

Those referrals have helped Sullivan Solar Power grow to over 100 employees in offices that serve San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange Counties. It is on several fastest-growing companies lists, from the global (Inc. Magazine 5000) to the local (San Diego Business Journal 100). They were the fourth company in the U.S. to earn accreditation from the prestigious North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).

Sullivan Solar Power’s business, in terms of installed capacity, is about a 25-75 split between residential and commercial customers, depending on the year. Local universities, from San Diego State — Tara Kelly’s alma mater — to the University of San Diego to UC San Diego to UC Irvine are among the company’s largest customers. Petco Park is the company’s first stadium project.

“The Padres put out a RFP for the project and we responded,” Kelly recalled. “It was a lengthy process but ended up winning the bid last summer. Work began on the installation, which sits atop Petco Park’s overhanging awning, in December.”

 

Petco Park Solar Photo 3

A crane lowers equipment for Sullivan Solar Power’s installation of its solar system atop Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)

 

The solar power system, which will have nearly three times as much capacity as AT&T Park in San Francisco’s 120 kW — good enough for second biggest in MLB —  is just about complete. It will utilize high-efficiency, 470-watt Sunpower solar modules. The Padres are slated to avoid over $4 million in San Diego Gas & Electric costs over the next 25 years from this solar project. The plan is to turn it on in time for solar-generated electrons to flow at the Padres’ home opener March 29th vs. the Milwaukee Brewers.

 

Petco Park Solar Photo 7

The Sullivan Solar Power team installs part of what will become the largest solar array in Major League Baseball at Petco Park (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)

 

Petco Park Solar Photo 6

The Sullivan Solar Power installation team takes a break during the installation of its solar system at Petco Park earlier this year (Photo credit: Sullivan Solar Power)…

 

Rock Center

…evoking the iconic photo of the Rockefeller Center construction crew taking a lunch break above the New York City skyline in 1932 (Photo credit: Bettman Collection/Corbis)

 

Sullivan Solar Power is partnering with the team to publicize the solar system and the value of renewable energy to Padres fans. “We have signage at Petco Park and will be showing photos or videos of the solar project to let fans know they’re in a solar-powered stadium,” said Kelly. “And, this year we will collaborate with the Padres for the second annual Solar Day at Petco Park, offering educational seminars on how solar can make a positive difference for fans at their residences as well.”

Educating baseball fans on the benefits of solar is just another evocation of Daniel Sullivan’s mission to fundamentally change the way make electricity. It goes back to his original inspirations — a safe, clean environment for his son, one that is free from wars-for-oil as well as from subsidies that favor fossil fuel development.

On this last point, Petco Park is not the only high profile venue at which Sullivan will educate the public. In 2016 and 2017, he bought full page ads in the San Diego Union-TribuneSullivan used that space to write long-form articles about the costs, locally and more broadly, of fossil fuel subsidies and oil wars. Click here and here to read two of them.

Sullivan’s is an important voice in support of the environmental, climate change-fighting and economic (i.e. green jobs) benefits of solar power. Here’s hoping the Petco Park installation is the first of many sports venues at which Sullivan Solar Power can share its vitally important mission with fans.

 


 

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