The GSB Interview: Mark Davis; from NBA Hardwood to DC Solar-Preneur

Mark Davis is a member of two very exclusive clubs. He is one of about 3,200 people who have played in the NBA, and, with WDC Solar, he is one of an even smaller number of people who have started inner city solar companies. His dual goals? Put a dent in climate change and reduce urban unemployment.

GreenSportsBlog sat down with Mr. Davis to talk about his journey from being a rural Georgia farm boy to the NBA to installing solar panels on rooftops in the nation’s capital.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Mark, GreenSportsBlog is always on the lookout for eco-athletes so we are glad to have found you! How did you go from the NBA to building a solar company in Washington, D.C.?

Mark Davis: There were two main factors that may, on the surface, sound unrelated. First, my upbringing on a farm in Georgia in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and second, Barack Obama’s run for the White House in 2008. Let me explain. Growing up on that farm made me acutely aware of the environment, how it works, and how important it is to do what I can to protect it. Now, fast forward to 2008. I had been retired from pro basketball for about 10 years by then. I had been working in real estate and software businesses, but was looking for something else. I was very excited about Senator Obama’s presidential campaign and was particularly inspired by his advocacy of renewables as part of his overall clean energy plan.

GSB: What did that inspiration lead to?

Mark: I started to ask about and study the clean energy markets. Talked to a friend from Nepal who was involved with the hydropower business over there. I traveled to Northern California to see the solar market up close and took a course about the solar business. I created a business plan and, even more importantly, found the right business climate in which to launch a solar company to give myself the best chance of success.

 

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Mark Davis, founder of WDC Solar (Photo credit: Jonathan Timmes, Sierra Magazine)

 

GSB: What do you mean by “right business climate”?

Mark: There were some aspects of a good business climate for solar when President Obama took office in 2009. For example, the federal stimulus program included funding for solar. But that wasn’t enough. And, at that time, incentives were not in place at the local, Washington D.C. level for solar and other renewables…

GSB: …and the prices for solar panels were much higher then than they are now.

Mark: …Yes, by a wide margin. We weren’t anywhere close to grid parity at that time. So what did we local D.C. installers do? The birth of a new industry doesn’t just happen. We did our homework and found that rebates and other incentives would be needed to allow solar to compete on a price basis with fossil fuel generated power provided by the utility. We lobbied local D.C. politicians and civic groups to promote legislation that put incentives in place that eliminated the boom-bust cycles that were the hallmark of the solar industry back then. Eventually, the city council and mayor joined our side.

GSB: Sounds like a lot of work!

Mark: It took a ton of homework and legwork, but it had to be done.

GSB: What happened next?

Mark: Once the legislation was in place and we were confident there would be a market for solar in D.C., we launched WDC Solar. But our approach to sustainability was not purely environmental. We also established the company to provide sustainable employment for young men and women who desperately needed it.

 

GSB: How did you do that?

Mark: We launched a training program that would teach young folks to be solar practitioners, which provided a pathway to employment at no cost to them.

 

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WDC Solar installation trainees learning their trade (Photo credit: WDC Solar)

 

GSB: Incredible! How did you fund this? Through angel investors and/or venture capital?

Mark: We bootstrapped it.

GSB: Meaning that you invested your own money for those unfamiliar to the startup scene…

Mark: That’s right. That’s how we were able to get the solar training program up and running.

GSB: Impressive. And then how did you get solar panels installed on people’s homes?

Mark: Well, at first, back in 2012-13, we worked with the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to transfer the solar rebates, tax credits and solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) to private equity investors, so solar panels could be installed on the roofs at no cost to low-income homeowners. The low-income families owned the energy produced by the panels. They had to pay for any electricity they used over and above what the panels produced which became a major incentive for the homeowners to become more energy efficient.

GSB: How did that work?

Mark: Very well in most cases. I’ll never forget it when one of my customers told me he had a monthly electric bill of 56 cents!

GSB: 56 cents???

Mark: He couldn’t believe it. couldn’t believe it! I’ll tell you, our customers have been just so thankful; it’s been a blessing to be able to help people. Another great outgrowth of our business was that many of our early trainees used that experience to get better jobs, thanks to a program with the District’s Department of Employment Services.

GSB: Talk about a blessing…So is WDC Solar only involved with residential customers?

Mark: We started with small-scale residential jobs; I’m talking 3-4 kW. Then, we got involved with bigger jobs when the District put out a request for proposal (RFP) to put solar on public school roofs. The RFP was for installations totaling 12 megawatts. We were fortunate to work on a portion of that portfolio. We also were involved with some commercial and utility-scale jobs, thanks to a partnership with Standard Solar. Our “sweet spot”, however, still remains low-income residential at this point.

GSB: Have you expanded beyond Washington, DC?

Mark: It’s been slow because in places like Maryland, the SREC prices aren’t so great. But with the price of solar panels coming down, the SRECS are becoming less important and that makes it is easier for us to go to other jurisdictions. Heck, when you and I first spoke, I was on the roof at Chevy Chase Baptist Church, just across the street from Maryland, helping to install a 100 kW system. Currently, we’re looking at opportunities in Atlanta and Chicago, but both are a bit complicated right now. One thing is certain: We only go into a market where we can create jobs for the local community.

GSB: I love the “solar plus jobs” business model. It just makes so much sense! Has WDC Solar worked on any sports venues?

Mark: We partnered with New Columbia Solar to provide installers to the Audi Field project, the brand new home of D.C. United in Major League Soccer (MLS).

 

Audi Field Solar

Artist’s rendering of the solar installation on the roof of Audi Field, the recently-opened home of DC United (Credit: New Columbia Solar)

 

GSB: I’ve heard great things about Audi Field; I need to get there soon. Sticking with sports GSB is constantly on the lookout for eco-athletes like yourself who could have a great effect on fans. Why haven’t we seen more eco-athletes and what can we do to change that?

Mark: That’s a complicated question. I think a big part of it is that it is so difficult, from a communications perspective, for many folks to connect extreme weather to the global, long-term climate change problem. The perception among many is that climate change is coming on slowly, that it is not a problem for today and that solutions are a century or more away. On the other hand, so the argument goes, there are clear and present dangers right now like police brutality against people of color and the opioid crisis that need more attention.

GSB: I couldn’t have said it better myself. So if that’s the case, how do we fight back?

Mark: Athletes and ex-athletes who work with people of color — WE have to be the agents of change! We need athletes to help us emphasize the massive economic benefits that will come to those who help solve the many climate-related crises. I see it starting to occur here — installing solar on your roof is definitely a statement of self-empowerment.

GSB: So which athletes can we get? How about LeBron James?? Nothing like aiming high, I always say!

Mark: LeBron James will be tough right out of the box. I think we should go for some great elder statesmen of sports who are also involved in renewables. In particular, I’m thinking of Bernard King, member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, who has worked on climate change issues and in the solar business. Also Dusty Baker, the Washington Nationals’ manager has a solar company. Another idea I have is to create a celebrity golf tournament dedicated to raising money to combat the climate crisis. Basketball players and other pro athletes love golf and this way we can highlight and communicate the urgency of solving the climate crisis in a collegial atmosphere. What do you think?

GSB: LOVE IT! Forget LeBron; let’s get serious and line up NBA superstar and scratch golfer and Brita water filter endorser Steph Curry in the mix! We must make this happen.

Mark: Hey, we’re in the “let’s make the impossible happen business”. I’m in!

 

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Mark Davis with President Obama at the 2016 State of the Union address (Photo credit: The White House)

 


 

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Dynamic Energy Networks Brings Renewables, Resiliency to Stadiums and Arena

June’s Green Sports Alliance Summit took place at Atlanta’s LEED Platinum jewel, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Forward thinking and acting Arthur Blank, owner of the Falcons and Atlanta United, directed the people who designed and built the stadium to do whatever it took to get the country’s first Platinum designation for a pro sports stadium.

The community-minded Blank also made sure that the stadium would serve the adjacent West Side neighborhood: Local residents helped build and are helping to operate Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And, in the case of a natural disaster or other type of emergency, the stadium will be transformed into a resilient community center.

But what if an owner is not as committed to the environment and/or the community as Mr. Blank, and/or doesn’t have as deep pockets?

Enter the innovative investment platform, Dynamic Energy Networks (DEN), backed by the Carlyle Group, along with its powerful global technology partner, Schneider Electric.

DEN brings deep experience in energy infrastructure investment and design, especially as it relates to distributed energy resources and Microgrid solutions. DEN/Carlyle has the experience and long-term vision to take on complex infrastructure projects such as stadia and arenas.  

Schneider Electric is leading the digital transformation of energy management and automation and has deep experience in energy efficiency upgrades at sports venues across the world.

As long-term investors, DEN stands behind these solutions, taking on the financial risk on behalf of owners, venues, and other sports organizations.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Karen Morgan, President and CEO of DEN, to get a sense of the “Art of the Possible” as it relates to the delivery of resilient, reliable, secure and sustainable solutions at stadia and arenas.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Karen, your input on the “The Art of the Possible: New Business Models to Achieve Your Community’s Energy Goals” panel at the Green Sports Alliance Summit in June, was a master class on the business of large scale renewable and microgrid projects, the trend towards distributed energy generation and what that can mean for stadiums, arenas and the communities they serve. We will get into that in a bit, along with how Dynamic Energy Networks fits into the Green-Sports world. But first, how did you get into the renewable energy business?

Karen Morgan: I’ve been in renewable energy in the United States for the past 12 years. Prior to that, I explored energy efficiency and renewable generation solutions in Central Europe. But my introduction to renewables came back in 1995, when we started a company that evolved from a data driven network to a trading platform for commodity chemicals.

 

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Karen Morgan, President and CEO of Dynamic Energy Networks (Photo credit: Dynamic Energy Networks)

 

GSB: Commodity chemicals trading? That seems like an unusual way in to the renewables world…

KM: That’s how most people react but we became a “Poster Child for Renewables” of sorts. Because, when you think about it, solar panels turn solar power into electricity because of…

GSB: …Chemicals!

KM: Exactly!

GSB: So what parts of the renewable energy business have you been in?

KM: I started on the development side, then we put together various financing structures to fund projects, providing advisory and development services. We focused on the commercial & industrial (C&I), municipality, educational and other markets. Eventually we co-founded an investment platform — RET Capital five years ago — which owned and operated utility scale solar and wind assets.

GSB: What was that like?

KM: We were located in California, and it was like the Wild, Wild West out there with solar. Of course, the industry grew up in no time and it is quite amazing to see how rapidly markets have evolved in and around renewable energy and adjacent utility-like services.

GSB: What led you to form Dynamic Energy Networks and what does the company do?

KM: Well, we formed DEN to address a MASSIVE macro-problem: The vulnerability of the existing centralized electricity grid to extreme weather and other natural disasters, as well as terrorism, cyberattacks and more. Working with our partners, we offer the expertise, capital and technical capabilities to design, build, own and operate decentralized microgrids at scale. Densely populated urban centers, university campuses and more are our targets. DEN/Carlyle quarterbacks the microgrid development process from concept to operation by bringing experienced, sophisticated and flexible capital solutions. And Schneider Electric adds essential state-of-the-art digital technology know how, with hundreds of microgrids already built and installed, to allow all aspects of our microgrids to communicate seamlessly with each other.

 

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Karen Morgan speaks on a panel with Mark Feasel (l), VP Smart Grid at Schneider Electric andAndrew Marino (r), Managing Director at The Carlyle Group (Photo credit: Microgrid Knowledge)

 

GSB: Sounds like you’ve put together a microgrid All-Star team with DEN. Can you give an example of a project DEN is working on?

KM: Sure! We are working with a coalition of partners to integrate a large-scale series of microgrids, which include electric vehicle infrastructure and distributed energy resources, to meet sustainability goals set by the governor of the state. While working within the framework of a multi-billion dollar redevelopment project with over 30 different companies involved, DEN and Schneider Electric will ensure the avoidance of a SINGLE POINT OF FAILURE and provide for a resilient, reliable, decentralized, and secure energy system to this critical infrastructure.

GSB:…That is a BIG DEAL! So is it fair to say that solar panels on the roof of a home or a solar powered car port in the parking lot of a stadium would be examples of decentralized or distributed generation as compared to the centralized power plant-sub-station model?

KM: That’s right. Now with intelligent control systems, like those developed by Schneider Electric, various renewable and traditional energy generation systems can be distributed throughout a localized site, such as a mixed-use stadium complex or a college campus. Within these sites, energy assets such as, solar, wind, energy storage, fuel cells, and combined heat and power (CHP), can be networked to support each other and deliver electricity to the customer in the case of a grid outage or the failure of a single, centralized source. Schneider Electric’s Ecostruxure controls harden microgrids against cyber security breaches and mitigate the risk of a cyber-attack on the centralized grid, ensuring an uninterrupted power supply for the customer.

GSB: This sounds like DEN is involved in the early days of a powerful and important mega-trend towards decentralized generation and microgrids. Where do sports venues fit in?

KM: In many industry sectors, including sports, the opportunity to “island” away from the grid in the case of an outage or security breach or storm, and achieve resilience, did not truly exist until recently. That is, where some of the technology may have been available, the economics did not make sense and the optimization tools were not commercially available. In addition, the size and complexity of such systems were not attractive to third party capital. As advanced technology has become increasingly available, and costs continue to decline, third party capital is becoming more interested in decentralized, “two way” flexible energy solutions. DEN is well suited to lead the charge here as Carlyle wrote the playbook on flexible long-term contracts for infrastructure globally. DEN is able to leverage thirty years of experience, knowing how to transfer risk away from owners by providing predictable long-term service agreements, eliminating the capital expense associated with completing large, infrastructure projects. So we operate the microgrid; the venue owner simply pays for the electricity they use and for resilience services.

GSB: What do you mean by resilience?

KM: Resilience in this case means providing reliable, clean and ongoing generation so the venue performs at peak whenever necessary, especially during unexpected outages. Venues become a safe haven for people to seek refuge when there is a local, regional or national emergency. The benefit of integrating microgrid and distributed energy resource solutions is having the ability to operate the stadium at an appropriate level for a prescribed period of time, independent of the utility grid. This is essential, in terms of business continuity, safety for fans, employees and the broader community

GSB: So you don’t have a tragedy as was suffered by the people of New Orleans at the Superdome during Katrina in 2005…

KM: That’s right. This is particularly relevant in the face of increasing intensity of extreme weather events like storms, wildfires and droughts. Resilience also means that sports organizations can trust that they will have a reliable source of energy when bidding for mega-events like the Super Bowl or the FIFA World Cup.

GSB: That has to be crucial for organizations like the IOC and FIFA. Going back to something you said earlier…what do you mean by experienced or sophisticated capital?

KM: DEN and the Carlyle Group have decades of experience working on critical infrastructure investments, in particular complex projects with long sales cycles that involve the C-suite.

GSB: So the capital is not only experienced and sophisticated, it is also patient.

KM: Exactly. Carlyle’s initial commitment of $500 million of flexible capital with no cap is a great launch pad to build out a multi-billion dollar energy infrastructure portfolio. And we’re hitting the market at the right time. The cost of renewable energy generation, energy storage, and other advanced resilient infrastructure technologies, continues to decline precipitously.

GSB: Which all sounds ideal for sports venues…

KM: Absolutely. As mentioned earlier, sports venues are part of a community’s critical infrastructure. They matter! For the most part, they’re centrally located. They’re tied to a region’s transportation infrastructure. When there’s an emergency, that’s where people go for toilets, cots, and much more. We saw what happens when this critical infrastructure failed back in 2005 with the Superdome and Katrina. Contrast that with how well stadiums and arenas performed last summer in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Major improvements have already been made and we’re working to accelerate the pace in what we see as an underserved market. The stadium or arena as a sports venue on game day, as a resilience center during emergencies and potentially, as a source of electricity to the grid or surrounding other critical infrastructure on non-game days…

 

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Thousands of evacuees lived under squalled conditions inside the Superdome while they waited to be evacuated after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005. Microgrids, of the sort developed by Dynamic Energy Networks, can turn large venues into places where the public finds relief from natural and other disasters (Photo credit: Willie J. Allen, Jr.)

 

GSB: ….Meaning that, depending on the regulatory environment, if a stadium or arena has on-site solar, on non-game days, it can sell the electricity coming from the panels to the grid — or to homes and businesses in the immediate area if they are connected via microgrid. Does Dynamic Energy Networks have any sports venue clients yet?

KM: Not yet. We and Schneider Electric made a strategic decision to reach out to the sports industry, starting by attending the Green Sports Alliance Summit in Atlanta. Our friends Dusty Baker and Bernard King…

GSB: …respectively, the former Washington Nationals manager and member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame

KM: …who spoke at the Summit have both been involved in the solar business since their playing days. We look forward to working with both Dusty and Bernard, both sustainability leaders!

GSB: Phenomenal! Especially since Bernard King is a hero of mine as I am die-hard Knicks fan — which means I’ve been dying hard for two decades! I look forward to a follow up GSB interview with you about DEN’s first sports projects.


 

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The GSB Interview: Justin Zeulner, Previewing the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summer in Atlanta

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, will be the site for two mega-events over the next year. Next February, the first LEED Platinum NFL stadium will play host to Super Bowl LIII. But well before that — June 26-27 to be exact — Green Sports Alliance Summit VIII takes center stage. Its theme is PLAY GREENER™: Get In The Game. GSB talked with Alliance Executive Director Justin Zeulner to find out about the new initiatives the Alliance has planned for attendees. 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Justin, before we got on the phone to talk Green Sports Alliance Summit in Atlanta, I had two main thoughts going through my head: 1. How can you and the rest of the Alliance braintrust freshen the Summit going into its eighth iteration, and 2. Having it at LEED Platinum Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a great freshener, indeed!

Justin Zeulner: Keeping things fresh — that’s a great question and it’s something we’re very much focused on, especially coming into this Summit. In fact, a couple of years ago, the leadership took a collective deep breath to figure out, strategically, what would be best, not only for our Summits but for the sports greening movement as a whole. We undertook this strategic refresh at a time of strong growth for us. Two or three years ago, we had 300+ members; now we’re nearing 600. When an organization like ours starts to scale like we have, new challenges arise. What can you provide that’s new, innovative and meaningful? How can we best continue to serve and lead our members, helping them grow their sustainability initiatives when there are many more of them.

GSB: A good problem to have…

JZ: We agree…

GSB: So how is the Alliance going about upping its game service-, growth- and leadership-wise?

JZ: Serve — We keep in close touch with our membership, finding out where they want to go and what guidance they need when it comes to environmental issues. We help by convening the Summit, providing resources and programs, largely around energy, water, transportation, food, and waste. Adding the Corporate Members Network was wonderful because that helped add a great many greener products and services to help our teams and venues reach their goals. Grow — the more the Alliance grows, the more people we get involved in the movement and the greater the impact we have as it relates to our mission — “to build healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play.” Lead—means trying new things, taking some risks…

 

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Justin Zeulner, Executive Director of the Green Sports Alliance (Photo credit: Green Sports Alliance)

 

GSB: Justin, that’s a great segue to this year’s Summit in Atlanta. What new things will you try? What risks will you take?

JZ: The title of our Summit is “PLAY GREENER ™: Get In The Game.” The “Get in the Game” piece is illustrative of the changes we’ve made for this year and takes into account comments we received from attendees last year in Sacramento.

GSB: What does that mean exactly?

JZ: One big change is that our sessions will be much more interactive than in past years — more workshops, than panel discussions. We want there to be a robust dialogue that’s as attendee-driven as possible. And we want attendees to leave with a crystal clear road map as to how to implement the greening programs they learn about in Atlanta.

GSB: What kind of programs are you talking about?

JZ: We’re adhering to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), helping our teams and venues do their part in terms of carbon mitigation to put humanity on a path to a less than 2°C temperature rise, as compared to pre-industrial levels. Food is one key area — we are helping venues with menu design, from more veggie options, to locally sourced food, and more. And venues are responding. Of course they offer burgers —but sometimes those burgers are veggie. In fact, Impossible Burgers

GSB: …The veggie burgers that taste and feel beef-like? They’re GREAT!

JZ: Impossible Burger will be at the Summit! Vegetarian and vegan foods are something athletes are getting more into, so we’ll be talking about that. But we’re getting even deeper with our “Business of Food” workshop. Larry Kopald of Carbon Underground will lead a discussion about regenerative farming, how it can help tackle our carbon problems, and how the sports industry can help support it. A local farmer will share his inspirational story of transforming his family farm from the traditional approach to regenerative farming and what scaling that can mean for sports and the world more broadly. Chefs will also take part, discussing how stadia and arenas can gradually add “plant forward” proteins to their menus.

 

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Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, site of the upcoming 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit (Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

 

GSB: This sounds like a fantastic workshop. And now I’m hungry!

JZ: Well save that appetite for the Tuesday night of the Summit. That’s when we will have our awards celebration at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Top chefs will be featured at our  “Taste of Atlanta”” event.

GSB: Sounds like it will be a must-attend event. Beyond food, what else will attendees see at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

JZ: Engagement will be a watchword at this year’s Summit, from athletes, to fans, to youth. Youth will be a particular focus with Diana Dehm leading another Student Summit.

GSB: I imagine attendees from teams and leagues will be very interested in how to engage youth with green sports. My bet is that nothing makes sports executives lose sleep these days more than the issue of to how to ensure millennials, Gen Zers, and the generation after follow sports with something close to the passion of their forebears. I’m not saying a team’s, a sport’s greenness is the determining factor but it can be a factor. Who will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s Summit?

JZ: Arthur M. Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, and the driving force behind the building of the LEED Platinum Mercedes-Benz Stadium, will be giving the keynote. His talk will center on how environmental leadership impacts community, social justice and health and wellness. Mr. Blank believes the environmental and the social are linked and it is his mission and that of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to positively impact both. Speaking of the social aspects of sustainability, another speaker of note is Samantha “Sam” Gordon. Honored by the NFL with their inaugural Game Changer award, Sam is a young woman from Utah who plays football with the boys and became the one of the best players on the team. That wasn’t enough for Sam — she started a league in her area for female tackle football players. Now Sam is not doing all this just for women to play football. She is doing this work to activate interest among girls in physical activity, exercise, and wellness and ensure underserved populations have a voice.

 

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Arthur M. Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United (Photo credit: Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment)

 

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Samantha “Sam” Gordon (Photo credit: Samantha Gordon)

 

GSB: For a GenZ girl like Sam, this is how social movements start!

JZ: Exactly. Also ex-major league baseball player and manager Dusty Baker and former NFLer Will Allen, both advocates for renewable energy, will talk about their experiences in the solar field. And we are honored to have David Kenny, CEO of the Weather Channel, as a speaker.

GSB: Well, I have to say, before we spoke, I was a bit skeptical about this Summit differing enough from its predecessors, that its focus would be too Green-Sports 1.0 (i.e. LEED certified stadia, Zero-Waste games) and not enough Green-Sports 2.0 (fan, athlete engagement) for my taste. But, from the speakers, to the topics, to the workshop style, to audience engagement, I see the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as an event that will, while still touching on worthwhile Green-Sports 1.0 issues, push the GreenSports clearly into its 2.0 phase. I am looking forward to it.

JZ: See you in Atlanta!

 

Click here for information on how to attend the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta June 26-27.
GreenSportsBlog is a media sponsor of the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit.

 


 

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