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Moving the goalposts: football stadiums as flexible energy assets?

Centre for Net Zero   •   8 December 2021

Arsenal may not be top of the Premier League (yet), but they’re an established league leader when it comes to sustainability.

The club thrives on a pioneering spirit that has existed throughout its 135 year history: it was the first team to introduce numbered shirts back in 1928, the first to install floodlights in 1951, and the first to have an underground station named after a football club rather than a geographical location in 1960.

This innovative spirit has endured and evolved well into the 21st century. In 2016, the club turned its attention to its significant energy consumption and partnered with market leaders Octopus Energy in a bid to reduce its environmental impact and switch to 100% green electricity.

As part of the Octopus Energy family, we took up the opportunity to head over to Highbury last week and meet Sustainability & Logistics Manager Mike Lloyd to find out more about how the partnership has evolved — and how we might be able to ensure it keeps pace with the changing energy landscape.

Mike took us through Arsenal’s club-wide Sustainability Strategy — which considers how to limit the negative environmental impact of every element of the club, from its first team’s air miles to floodlight efficiency and grounds maintenance. It was immediately clear that Arsenal’s competitive spirit is not confined to the pitch, matching a palpable desire to lead the football and wider sporting community towards a more sustainable future. Arsenal rightly recognises the power of sport in terms of its reach and ability to influence fans and their behaviours. With an estimated global fanbase of 27 million, this shouldn’t be underestimated. As Mike pointed out, if supporters can learn from the steps their club is taking and nudge them towards new behaviours, there’s potential for a strong multiplier effect across multiple markets.

Arsenal have introduced a series of landmark green initiatives, which include:

  • Implementing a reusable cup scheme in partnership with the local Camden Town Brewery at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season. Earlier this year, it was reported to have saved half a million single-use plastic cups from landfill — exemplifying how small operational changes can have a positive environmental impact over a sustained period.
  • Deploying 7kW Octopus Energy electric vehicle chargers in the underground stadium car park earlier this year, enabling fans with EVs to charge during games.
  • Installing a 3MW battery storage system that stores enough energy to run the Emirates for an entire match. This is the equivalent of powering 2,700 homes for two hours.
  • Being the first Premier League club to commit to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, which aims to bring together the global sports community to ensure they’re aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement and support the ambition to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
  • Getting first team players, local junior Gunners and Arsenal community connections to plant trees at its training centre in London Colney, which now total 29,000.

The club has set a series of annual targets relating to everything from supply chains and procurement to biodiversity. As our team began to learn more about the energy profile of the stadium, including its energy use and common spikes in consumption, we started to explore some ideas with Mike around ways of making the most of its current assets — including the opportunity to sell excess energy stored in its battery back to the grid — and bringing in new assets to bolster its energy supply.

Increasing self-generation capabilities is a key target at the Emirates. We discussed leveraging the entire Arsenal network and considering energy profile synergies: for example, engaging local schools that the club supports by installing solar panels on their roofs that could be used by both parties at different times (school hours versus evening and weekend matches). We also talked about the rollout of solar panels on the stadium’s roof and at its training ground where there’s an abundance of space — and the potential to harness the wind tunnel surrounding the stadium, possibly through innovations in traditional wind turbines such as new smaller or bladeless models that could be better suited to the Emirates’ urban environment.

Whilst around 70% of fans use public transport to get to the stadium on match day, we discussed preparing for and benefitting from the acceleration in the adoption of EVs. The underground car park — which is used regularly by Arsenal staff on a day to day basis and by a handful of fans during matches — could be equipped with vehicle-to-grid charging technology, enabling drivers to both charge and discharge energy to the grid whilst their car is parked up and inactive. Could there be opportunities for the Emirates to operate as a virtual power plant, providing energy to the local housing and community that surrounds the stadium? Could we make more of the invested community base by encouraging them to invest in local energy schemes that are based onsite?

It was clear that Mike has ambitions for a joined up, whole systems approach to energy management at the Emirates. As we look ahead to 2022, one of our core focus areas here at Centre for Net Zero is to understand what demand profiles look like for today’s typical businesses and organisations — and how flexible these might be. With this in mind, what could a ‘real world place’ look like, with ‘everything as an energy asset’? Football stadiums could be one part of this — alongside supermarkets, hospitals, office buildings and data centres. Taking an innovative approach to the management of energy intensive assets presents significant flexibility opportunities — and we look forward to working with the likes of Mike and others to unlock these as we transition to a greener future energy system.