With 30% coal generation in NRG Energy’s fleet, chief executive David Crane cannot exactly be hailed the Sun King. But the photovoltaic roof over the top tier of the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey is a crowning solar achievement for what may become the largest independent electricity generator in the US after its pending merger with GenOn is approved.

“Not all renewables are created equal and solar has versatility lacking in other technologies such as wind,” said Crane. “To NRG, solar is the gamechanger.”

The economics do not add up on the cost per kilowatt-hour alone – a number that is a closely guarded secret by the Princeton-based energy wholesaler and the New York Jets and Giants, fierce local rivals who share the $1.8bn stadium.

In an industry obsessed with chasing the SunShot Initiative goal of $1/watt installed costs of PV, down from its current $6 for residential solar, and grid parity sometimes as low as 8c per kwh, the only thing that is clear about NRG Energy’s price structure is that it too expensive to make public. NRG owns the installations and sells the electricity back to the stadium under power purchase agreements that are shorter than the 20 year convention in the utility industry.

Just weeks before a new season kicks off for the National Football League, NRG Energy was keen to show off the solar installation and the light display it powers.

To NRG, solar is the gamechanger,” – Crane

Dazzling multi-coloured LEDs trim the glass PV panel installation that encircles the stadium, making it visible from Manhattan. The PV cells are contained in tempered sheets of glass made by Altantis Energy Systems, based in Poughkeepsie, New York. Only a handful of manufacturers around the world specialise in Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) panels like these, at relatively low volume, each panel taking around six hours to complete.

In today’s cut-throat PV panel industry, the MetLife panels are very expensive – a bit like buying a brand new Ferrari, when all your neighbours are buying secondhand Toyota Corollas.

But the value of these NFL deals is worth much more than their sticker price. Last season, 111.3m viewers tuned into to watch the NY Giants beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl final earlier this year. Advertisers paid an average of $3.5m for 30 seconds’ exposure on the big screens.

“These are solid rational business deals,” said Crane. “But it’s very hard to determine whether you are making money specifically because there’s the marketing element.

“Generally, the solar projects that we’re doing with the NFL teams are not at a loss. They’re not a loss leader to get market share.

“When it comes to business and end use customers we’re trying to raise awareness and start the conversation.”

During the demonstration for journalists and NRG Energy staff who worked on the project, it becomes clear that the value of the installation is both aesthetic and functional. The installation is an architectural enhancement that may have been overlooked in the original design and the BIPV panels keep the top-tier seats shielded from rain. Meanwhile, Jets and Giants fans over in Manhattan will know by the color of the illumination zipping around the stadium which team has scored a touchdown.

Woody Johnson, the owner of the Jets, said that the impact of the NRG solar ring goes way beyond its fanbase and said he would consider further investments in solar. “It’s very important. We don’t have enough resources in the world with an increasing population. So we have to develop technology that recognises that fact.”

But the electricity generated by the 1,350 350kw panels that ring the stadium is small – enough to power the lights 25 times over.

The Idea was Adapted from a Radical Concept

Crane said the idea to install solar at NFL stadiums began amid the failure of climate legislation in Congress in 2010, which coincided with the announcement from, Jeff Lawrie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, that he would take the stadium off the grid.

“Jeff Lawrie, the owner of the Eagles, is a very committed environmentalist,” said Crane. “And anyone who would listen to this thing would know that it wasn’t going to work.

“We politely suggested that their plan wasn’t realistic, that there are other ways of doing things.

“Football stadiums have a lot of positive qualities but there may be no building in America that makes less sense to take off the grid. The electric load of a football stadium is moderate for 357 days, then for eight days a year it goes [very high].

“The max load for a Giants game at night is about 18MW.”

NRG began developing ideas with the team to help them deal with the lumpy load from off season, game days and rock concerts.

Crane said Jason Few, executive vice-president and chief customer officer at NRG Energy, arranged a meeting to present what was possible with solar to the 32 teams in the NFL.

Eighteen teams showed up and at least half of them contacted NRG afterwards. NRG now has five installations at NFL stadiums around the country, the largest to date is a 2MW installation at Washington Redskins’ FedExField completed in September 2011. The company will also formally announce a deal with San Francisco’s 49ERs for the team’s new stadium in Santa Clara.

Innovative Deals

Partnership with NFL teams was also appealing because businesses that are well run by leaders with good corporate pedigrees, such as Woody Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson family and Jonathan Kraft, president of The Kraft Group and the New England Patriots.

Kraft met Crane at the SuperBowl in 2010 and the Patriots’ campus now has installed 2,457 Sunpower panels on the roofs of a big box store and a solar canopy in the shopping mall next to the Gillette Stadium, made from Schott’s expensive BIPV glass panels.

The 1.5m kwh produced by the two installations will be enough to serve 60% of the load on campus in an exclusive five-year agreement with NRG.

Kraft said that he acknowledged that the installations would not produce electricity at grid parity, but it was important for the Patriots to “make a statement.”

“We were trying to communicate what sustainable energy was and what could be done and what was possible to our fans,” he said. “We don’t get a direct return on investment but we’re a visible business in the community and it’s the right thing to do.”

Kraft said that the Patriots attracted a lot of criticism for live streaming games for free over the internet in 1997. There were only a handful of viewers then, but now the Patriots have a “very healthy” digital presence, in part because of its first mover advantage. A similar shift could happen in solar, he said.

The NFL deals are only part of a broader vision for Crane who took the reins as CEO of NRG in 2003.

Solar and wind currently only comprise 2% of its energy portfolio, a figure that is dwarfed by its conventional fuel generation – coal (30%), nuclear (5%) and oil & gas (63%).

But NRG has the largest commitment to solar of any conventional wholesale power generation company in the US. NRG’s net-owned solar capacity is ~165 MW, with around 950MW of capacity under construction, including the Ivanpah solar thermal plant in the Mojave desert.

Either directly or indirectly through partnerships with companies such as BrightSource and Google, NRG has been involved in the award of $3bn in Department of Energy 1705 loans.

“NRG is not a renewable energy or solar energy company we are a conventional power company,” said Crane. “Most of the other power companies, traditional utilities, are trying to hold back the tides of sustainability as long as they can. NRG has taken the opposite approach and said let’s embrace the future now and try to accelerate it.”