Car Racing and Energy Efficiency–Strange Bedfellows? Not Anymore

Story and photos by E.Q. Lam
June 28, 2011 

SONOMA, CA — Hershel Allen noticed something different at Infineon Raceway on June 25 at this noted motorsports complex in California’s Sonoma Valley:  sheep grazing on the hill behind the grandstand.

“They’re mowing the grass,” observed the NASCAR fan from Santa Rosa. In recent years, Infineon has introduced environmentally friendly practices including recycling, water conservation, and even inviting local farmers to graze 3,000 sheep on the raceway’s grounds and track.

Sheep graze on the hill behind Infineon’s main grandstand, oblivious to the loud roar of race cars.

Perhaps most important is the installation of more than 1,600 solar panels throughout the Infineon campus. The panels now create 41 percent of the energy used at the raceway, which operates 340 days a year. “The track is in constant use,” said Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon. “The installation of Panasonic’s high-efficiency solar panels and board is a major milestone in Infineon Raceway’s Accelerating Sustainable Performance program.”

The solar panel installation is the first major project of Infineon and Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company (PESC), which provides customized technological systems for the sports, entertainment, and education sectors. Last November, Infineon and Panasonic announced the “Accelerating Sustainable Performance” program at the track. Eight months later, the companies unveiled 1,652 solar panels producing 353 kilowatts of power—a savings of more than 1,000 barrels of oil per year, according to Panasonic. PESC President Jim Doyle estimates the useful life of the solar system at more than 25 years.

The panels, manufactured by Panasonic’s Sanyo division in Salem, Oregon, are among the most efficient on the market, Doyle said. They are located at five sites throughout the Infineon campus:  on the rooftops of the administration building, driving school, main grandstand, café building, and on top of Turn 10 Sound Wall across from the main grandstand, in direct view of patrons looking out at the track.

Panasonic also installed 72 solar panels which power a low-energy LED dual-sided video screen as part of the Infineon’s landmark sign along Highway 37. The board is brighter than the older sign, which was lit with 7,000 traditional light bulbs, yet the new board uses half the energy. Using a tracker to sense its path across the sky, the panels tilt to follow the sun throughout the day.

PESC President Jim Doyle views the solar panels atop the main grandstand at Infineon Raceway.

Page said Infineon aims to be a leading example to other race facilities in sustainability. There are others, however. Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway has nearly 40,000 photovoltaic modules and adds enough energy to the power grid to run itself plus 1,000 homes. Unlike Pocono, which according to Page was a power purchasing agreement with an outside company, Infineon’s environmental efforts started from within.

Infineon’s demonstrated commitment to sustainability was important to Panasonic. “I looked out the window and saw 1,000 sheep mowing the lawn here. These people really mean it,” said Doyle.

Doyle said collaborating with Infineon made sense because Panasonic already provided televisions and other technology to the raceway. “We really have a large breadth [of products and services], which is attractive when we go to a race track,” Doyle said. “Most people know Panasonic from what you see when you walk inside a retail store.” Yet the company offers a wide range of products beyond stereos and televisions, such as fuel cell technology and lithium ion batteries for vehicles. Panasonic aims to be the leading green innovator in electronics by 2018, its 100th anniversary.

Likewise, Infineon hopes to make the public aware of something race tracks are not commonly known for:  energy conservation efforts. “That’s why the solar panels were positioned where they could be most visible to fans,” Page explains. He acknowledges that motor racing is carbon intensive, but hopes to inspire race fans to seek greener energy solutions and that the efforts will win over new fans.

Page anticipates millions of people annually will see Infineon’s LED highway sign and the large solar panel installation next to it. “The idea of a motor racing facility launching a sustainability program is counterintuitive,” said Page. “Whatever you may assume about people in our industry, … we want to set an example for people who come out to visit us.”

Solar panels sit on the roof of Infineon’s administration building.

Part of the inspiration came from being in northern California, where a strong focus on sustainability exists. “There’s a certain segment of the consuming public to whom sustainability is the first or second criterion,” Page said. “It’s very important for us to demonstrate there are options that don’t compromise quality. … Performance does not have to be compromised.”

In the planning stage of the installation project, Panasonic considered more than the functionality of the solar panels. “How does it mesh with the fabric of the race?” Doyle explained.

Infineon plans to consider the feasibility of increasing events with electric motorcycles and other sustainability ideas at a summit on August 25, 2011, said Page. Panasonic will participate in the summit, along with other corporate partners of Infineon. “We see this [solar panel installation] as the launch of a much larger future together,” Page said.

Even if fans have not taken notice of the solar panels yet, Infineon has succeeded in maintaining the auto racing experience while cutting its carbon footprint. And that certainly won’t lose Infineon any fans.

As for electric car racing, NASCAR fan Allen has not quite warmed up to the idea. “I like to smell the fumes a little, you know,” he said.

Once the technology develops, future events at Infineon may include low- or no-carbon auto races, said Page. The raceway has already hosted electric motorcycle races twice, including the TTXGP U.S. Championships, the first zero carbon emission race in the country. “I think the novelty for us is seeing the bikes go by and hearing nothing, especially when you’re used to the piercing sound of race cars,” Page said.

Read how electric car racing is gaining ground:
Green Auto Racing — Pedal to the Medal, or Pedal to the Grass?

Transportation to Infineon Raceway provided by Panasonic.

Check out more articles by E.Q. Lam.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

2 Comments

  1. Um... really? June 29, 2011
  2. E.Q. Lam September 9, 2011

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