Fans arriving at Super Bowl LIII in  Atlanta next weekend will be far too excited to think twice about the carports that they'll be parking under. But those structures go a long way toward helping the newly opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium earn its status as the greenest sports arena in the world. 

Completed in 2017, the $1.5 billion stadium is the first sports facility ever to receive Platinum certification from the global rating system LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). One decision that helped the stadium earn that honor: The carports in the parking lot are plastered with solar panels.

Quest Renewables, the 10-person company that designs the carports, began in the Georgia Tech Research Institute in 2011. The institute received a $6 million grant from the Department of Energy, with one of the objectives being to find a way to lower solar construction costs.

"The prices of solar panels were being reduced quickly," says Finn Findley, who advised on the project in its early stages and is now the company's CEO. "But there really hadn't been much innovation in construction."

Findley remembers observing a carport being built several years ago while doing research for the project. He watched a construction worker on a scissor lift drop a bolt, lower his bucket down to the ground to pick it up, then raise himself back up to continue his work.

 inline image

"It took about five minutes of labor to pick up a 40-cent piece of equipment," Findley says. "The process was so inefficient. So I asked the team, 'Can you make a system strong enough so we can just build it all on the ground and then lift it up with a crane?' And they're a bunch of engineers from Georgia Tech, so they said, 'Of course.' "

The result, called the QuadPod, is a solar-panel-mounted carport that can withstand feet of snow and hurricane-strength winds. Quest Renewables, which designs the projects using technology licensed from Georgia Tech, launched commercially in 2014. It has just under $2 million in funding, including an investment from the Georgia Research Alliance Venture Fund.

When Mercedes-Benz Stadium put out a request-for-proposal for a solar project at its new stadium several years ago, Quest and Georgia Power teamed up on a bid. Their proposal was selected, and today the carports generate 617 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. In all, the 1.6 million kWh of solar energy generated at the stadium--there are also solar panels on its roof and over its entrances--are enough to power the stadium for 10 NFL games each year. For non-football fans: That's the home team Atlanta Falcons' entire regular season, plus two additional games.

To be sure, the electricity generated by the panels doesn't directly power the stadium. Instead, it's put back into the power grid, and utility company Georgia Power then provides the stadium's owners with rebates for the amount of power it generates.

The arrangement allows Georgia Power to rely less on its fossil fuel power plants. It also serves as a model for what other stadiums and corporations could do with their significantly sized lots.

"The parking lots are already there," Findley says. "This doesn't require any new real estate."

 inline image

For most businesses, of course, the decision to take on such a project would be a financial one. Findley says that most of the projects pay for themselves within a few years, depending on factors like the rebate rate offered by local utility companies and the amount of sun the region gets. Using Massachusetts as an example--not a particularly sunny area--Findley says a project built there today could pay for itself in about four years. 

And for a company, of course, reducing one's carbon footprint means some good public relations, as Mercedes-Benz Stadium has gotten for its green efforts. Other factors contributing to its high sustainability score: its use of energy-efficient LED lighting, a 2-million-gallon reservoir for storing and reusing rain water, a bike valet program, and a garden that grows food served at the arena's concession stands.

The cost of producing solar power has dropped by 86 percent since 2009. As such, the industry grew steadily for nearly a decade before shrinking slightly in 2017 thanks in part to fear over President Trump's impending tariffs on imported panels.

While plenty of companies besides Quest make solar carports, including Blue Oak Energy and Carport Structures Corp., Findley says that Quest's on-the-ground installation process cuts the time needed for construction in half or more. For the Mercedes-Benz project, the stadium was willing to give the company use of its lot for nearly four months. Quest completed the project in less than one.

The startup's other projects have included carports at Maryland's Salisbury University and atop a parking garage in Portland, Maine. This month, it finished its largest yet, a 1,000-kWh installation at the South Carolina headquarters of electronics manufacturer AVX. 

"It's cool to work on a project where every time you finish one, you're like, 'Hey, I just kept a little carbon out of the atmosphere,' " Findley says. "You get the business win, but you also get the environmental win, which feels even better."