Scoring A Goal For Sustainability With Seattle Kraken/Climate Pledge Arena’s Rob Johnson | Convoy
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Scoring A Goal For Sustainability With Seattle Kraken/Climate Pledge Arena’s Rob Johnson

The United States has large-scale sports and entertainment arenas in nearly every major city, yet rarely do we consider the scope 3 emissions associated with the daily operation of such a building. When you consider the transportation of people, equipment, performers or teams, supplies, and more to and from the structure — not to mention the food and beverage sold inside with single use plastics — the transportation element alone can account for a significant part of the venue’s total carbon footprint.

I recently scored the opportunity to have a chat with Rob Johnson, VP of Sustainability and Transportation for Seattle Kraken and Climate Pledge Arena. Climate Pledge Arena will be the first net zero certified arena in the world with a goal of being the most progressive, responsible, and sustainable arena in the world. It will be home to Seattle Kraken, the NHL’s 32nd club.

Rob helped us take a deeper dive into how sustainability evolved as the arena was being renovated and transformed, the increasingly significant role transportation plays in an arena operation, and the ways in which the organization is valuing sustainability overall and how it is playing out in each department. His key takeaways follow. 

  • How Sustainability Became A Part Of The Arena’s Reconstruction: This is a historic landmark, so it has been a really incredible engineering challenge to preserve and hold up a 44-million-pound roof while we construct a brand-new building underneath and then link that building back up to the roof. In the middle of all of this, we added another layer of complexity by suggesting to the engineers, “Well, we know you’re all permitted to build out this building one way, let’s decide to totally change directions and decarbonize the building, eliminate all the fossil fuels, and add all these other sustainability components.” So, in addition to all of the engineering marvels that are happening, we’re also undertaking all the sustainability construction components too. (1:01)
  • How His Role In Transportation Evolved Into Sustainability As Well: We were already being pretty innovative before we took on the moniker of Climate Pledge Arena. And then we announced we would be fully subsidizing public transit rides for our home hockey game for fans who might not have an ORCA (bus, train, and ferry transportation) card. We were looking at all of these innovative partnerships to ensure we reduced our carbon footprint. When we started to analyze the totality of our scope 3 emissions associated with our building, we realized that transportation of people, of stuff, of artists to and from our building could account for as much as 70% of our total carbon footprint. So, when you think about those challenges together, you have to have a solution that works for transportation and is sustainable as well. (4:37) 
  • How The Organization Sees Tangible Value In Its Sustainability Efforts: Sustainability starts with recycling the roof. The embodied carbon that we saved by keeping that roof and building the brand-new building underneath is the equivalent to the amount of steel it would take to construct a brand-new football stadium. Keeping that roof significantly reduced the emissions which might come from the construction of our facility. And there are a whole lot of other great stories about constructing the building in the middle of a neighborhood which has a lot of really great transportation choices to it already. We started with that premise and then we built off of it. It then expanded to how we can make infrastructure investments in the monorail system, which is a one-mile connection from downtown to the building’s front door and was originally built alongside the building for the World’s Fair in 1962 and needed some modernization. We’re embarking on a public-private partnership to spend $7 million dollars to upgrade that monorail system so our fans can have a 90-second ride from downtown to the building’s front door. It is the simple things which will help benefit our fans from an experience perspective, but also benefit the arena’s environmental footprint as well. (6:20) 
  • Valuing Long-Term Sustainability Over Short-Term Investments: One of the things we’ve done is totally decarbonize the building. We’re aiming to be the world’s first certified net zero carbon arena through a nonprofit called the Internationals Living Futures Institute. We looked at different folks to do certification programs and we found them to be the most stringent in the world. In order to meet that certification, you have to do four primary things: 1) eliminate all fossil fuels from your building; 2) have some component of renewable energy on site, 3) procure the remainder of your energy from renewable sources, and 4) offset all of your operations from a carbon perspective. We totally decarbonized the building and one of the complications there is we’re buying infrastructure that might be a little bit more expensive because it’s electric boilers instead of gas boilers, but the benefit for us is that from an operating perspective, we’re getting a much more clean and consistent energy source. It might cost us a little bit up front in the capital, but the operating costs are going to be found to be lower over the lifecycle of the facility as a result. Renewable energy is another good example. We’re working to install solar panels on the atrium, which is the entrance point for most of our fans, and on the garage across the street. That’s going to generate about 5% of the energy used by the building. (8:33) 
  • How Sustainability Is Integrated Across The Organization: One of my proudest moments was shortly after we announced the name of the building was going to be the Climate Pledge Arena, we had a senior leadership meeting amongst our VPs and above, and for about a half an hour, various people within the organization started talking about sustainability and the impact they thought this was going to have on their line of business. I didn’t say a word that entire half hour. That’s when you know it has really become imbued in the organizational culture. The operations team was talking about some of the ways they could work with our food and beverage partners to reduce the carbon footprint and ensure that vendors are coming from local restaurants. The team who is working on admin issues were asking questions about office supplies and where they could source greener paper or greener toner for our printers. The team who was thinking about the building operations was saying, “How could we find some net metering solutions so we can understand exactly which of our biggest energy users in the building are active at what point so we can then off cycle some of that load and try to help reduce some of our energy usage in the building?” It started to have this really wonderful, billowing out effect where so many other business streams within our arena are taking on that sustainability mantle and really innovating on their own without any direction or guidance from me. (11:11) 
  • Why The Sustainability Mindset Was So Easily Integrated: When you work for a professional sports organization or arena, there is a team mentality to it already. So, the idea that we’re embracing sustainability at the top from the ownership to the senior leadership, on down, becomes something a lot of folks want to buy into because of that team culture. Secondly, it’s consistent with the values of our region. A lot of folks who are getting hired by this team are really excited to come and be a part of the Pacific Northwest and our legacy and our history — which includes environmental activism. Earth Day was founded in Seattle in 1970, so, this is a place that is known as a hotbed of environmental activism. But I think more importantly for me, a lot of folks who have been hired by this organization are really interested in building something new and different from what they’ve been a part of before. (13:03) 
  • His Biggest Challenge: Finding and collecting all of the data from all these different sources, analyzing that data, and then accounting for the carbon footprint of the building is going to be an enormous challenge. We’ve got very little scope one emissions. But when we think about all of the other things that happen within a building as busy as ours with 200 programmed events every year so that’s an event 2 out of every 3 nights, this is an enormous task. We have 10,000 to 20,0000 people coming to and from that event, purchasing food, using the restrooms, the clean up of all of those people before and after the events, the total amount of operations of this facility, etc., collecting and analyzing all of that data, and then finding ways to understand the impact of that is going to be an enormous challenge. (15:05) 
  • What People Should Know About The Seattle Kraken And The Climate Pledge Arena: Two things that have really captured our fan’s attention are first, the fact that we’re collecting rainwater off of one quarter of our roof, holding it in a 15,000-gallon cistern and using that to resurface the ice on our game nights. We call that our Rain to Rink Solution. The second is the idea that we’re going to be banning the use of single use plastics. When you stand at the arena’s front door and you look to the west, you can see the Puget Sound. We know collectively the impact those single use plastics are having on the health of Puget Sound, our native salmon and orca population, but also our human health. When you consider that an artist like Billie Eilish could just come into a building and say, “I’m going to play in your building, but one of the prerequisites, one of the riders is that you can’t have any single-use plastics while I’m in the building.” That was inspirational to us and we thought, if she can ban it for one night, why couldn’t we ban it for 365 days a year? So, we’re not going to be able to ban everything on day one but we’re going to ban most things and then we are going to phase out everything, we hope by the 2024 timeline. The idea here for us to inspire fans to really reduce their plastic use and consumption is going to be a really, really great one. (17:52) 

TRANSCRIPTION

Jennifer Wong: Today we have Rob Johnson joining us, the VP of sustainability and transportation for Seattle Kraken and Climate Pledge Arena. 

Rob Johnson: Thank you, Jennifer. I am so happy to join you.

Jennifer: I’m very excited to hear more about your role and responsibilities for both, the new Seattle hockey team as well as their new arena they’re going to be playing in.

Rob: That’s exactly right and it is actually literally a historic landmark, Jennifer. So, this has been a really incredible engineering challenge to preserve and hold up that 44-million-pound roof while we construct a brand-new building underneath it and then link that building back up to the roof. And one of the things that we have done in the middle of all of this is add another layer of complexity by suggesting to all those engineers, “Well, we know you’re all permitted to build out this building one way, let’s decide to totally change directions and decarbonize the building, eliminate all the fossil fuels, and add all these other sustainability components.” So, in addition to all the engineering marvels that’s happening here, you know, floating the roof, holding it up, building the new building underneath it, now we’re also undertaking all the sustainability construction components too which has been really fun but a lot of work. 

Jennifer: I would love to hear more about your [2:00] career journey. What led you to the Seattle Kraken? 

Rob: Great question. You know, like you, I grew up here so for me the very first thing that I remember volunteering for as a youngster, one of the requirements in middle school was to have an organization that you wanted to volunteer for, and I volunteering to support Earth Day 20. Which was having its 20th anniversary way back in 1990 and got really interested in environmentalism and preservation. And as somebody who cares a lot about, you know, Puget Sound region, have always had that as a value of mine personally. Was very fortunate enough to have a career in urban planning, mostly focused in the environmental and non-profit space. So, a lot of my work has been, how do we preserve farmland and forest land, and ensure that we have densities, you know, not build giant big parking lots and garage mahals but instead big great public transit infrastructure and use that as a way to really bring people into environmental and conservation work. I translated that career in the nonprofit space into a couple of years on the Seattle City Council where I was fortunate enough to serve as the directly elected representative for North East Seattle for three and a quarter years. And at that time, shepherded through some really big environmental pieces of legislation including the city’s first major zoning changes to really help the city meet its growth challenges. The biggest public transit infrastructure package in our region’s history with the expansion of our light rail system, and a whole list of other things. And then I got hired on by the team and the arena to help them think about their transportation challenges. And after being there for about a year, they said, “You know, we want you to do the sustainability stuff too.” So, for the last year or so I’ve been the VP [4:00] of both sustainability and transportation which has been a really wonderful job because those two things are really inextricably linked, particularly in our region. 

Jennifer: It’s uncommon for most sustainability leaders to also have transportation as a part of their purview but it is really well aligned, especially when you look today at supply chains being hugely impactful to reach sustainability goals. How did those two kind of converge and align, how did your role change when you took on sustainability in addition to transportation? 

Rob: On the transportation side of things, we were already being pretty innovative before we really took on the moniker of Climate Pledge Arena. About a year ago we announced we’d be fully subsidizing public transit rides for our home hockey games, for fans who might not have an orca card. And we were looking at all these kind of other innovative partnerships to ensure that we really reduced our carbon footprint. When we started to analyze the totality of our scope 3 emissions associated with our building, we realized that transportation of people, of stuff, of artists to and from our building could account for as much as 70% of our total carbon footprint. So, when you think about those challenges together, you have to have a solution that work for transportation because they need to work for sustainability. So, we started to really try to tackle those things together and we’re now really in the process of trying to build out an infrastructure plan that will really work for our fans and will reduce our environmental footprint. For me, it’s a twin passion because in our region our transportation portfolio is the lion share of our regional emissions portfolio. Well, the team in the arena are no different. So, if we’re really going to be thought leaders on this, we have to be thought leaders in the transportation space as well. [6:00]

Jennifer: How does the Seattle Kraken team as well as the arena articulate the tangible value of sustainability? It sounds like it was incorporated since the beginning when you were thinking about rebuilding the arena, but how did it become so top of mind and such a priority?

Rob: Yeah, you know, we’re…the sustainability starts with first, recycling the roof, right? The embodied carbon that we saved by keeping that roof and building the brand-new building underneath it is the equivalent to the amount of steel it would take to construct a brand-new football stadium. So, we, you know, by keeping that roof, as complicated as it was, it really significantly reduced the emissions that might come from the construction of our facility and of course, there’s a whole lot of other great stories about building the building in the middle of a neighborhood that has a lot of really great transportation choices to it already. So, you know, we started with that premise and then we started to build off of it, you know. It then expanded to how can we make infrastructure investments in the monorail system, which is a one-mile connection from downtown to the buildings front door, was originally built alongside the building for the World’s Fair in 1962 and needs some modernization. So, we’re embarking a public private partnership to spend seven million dollars to upgrade that monorail system so that our fans can have a 90 second ride from downtown the building’s front door. And once you’re downtown, there is a whole variety of great transportation choices for you. Whether that’s public transit, relatively low-cost parking, ride share opportunities, the travel time benefits are going to be huge if you think about your destination being West Lake Center as opposed to our front door and has huge environmental benefits to us as well. That first mile, last mile can sometimes be the lion share of your emissions portfolio. So, its simple things like that, that we think [8:00] will really help benefit our fans from a fan experience perspective but also benefit the arena’s environmental footprint as well. 

Jennifer: I see. And as you’re looking at these considerations such as preserving the historic roof and you’re able to reduce the carbon emissions from that, are you also able to reduce materials cost because you’re not purchasing, kind of, brand new materials to build a new roof or because you’re making transportation much more efficient and investing in the monorail system, you’re going to be able to get fans to come and sell more ticket. Like, its how you also think about the impact of these initiatives. 

Rob: It’s a really great question. So, one of the things that we’ve done here is totally decarbonize the building. So, we’re aiming to be the world’s first certified net zero carbon arena. And that sort of dedication is through a nonprofit called the Internationals Living Futures Institute. We looked at a of different folks to do certification programs and we found them to be the most stringent in the world. In order to meet that certification, you have to do 4 main things. You have to eliminate all fossil fuels from your building, you have to have some component of renewable energy on site, you have to procure the remainder of your energy from renewable sources, and then you have to offset all of your operations from a carbon perspective. So, we are doing the first part. We totally decarbonized the building and one of the complications there, Jennifer, is we’re buying infrastructure that might be a little bit more expensive because its electric broilers instead of gas broilers, but the benefit for us is that from an operating perspective, we’re getting a much more clean and consistent energy source. So, it might cost us a little bit up front in the capital, but the operating cost are going to be found to be lower over the lifecycle of the facility as a result. Renewable energy is another [10:00] good example. We’re working to install solar panels in two elements of our building. The historic roof, unfortunately, we can’t have solar panels on that because of the national landmark status of it but we’re installing solar panels on the atrium, which is the entrance point for most of our fans, and on the garage across the street. That’s going to generate, you know, about 5% of the energy use by the building. And again, another way for us to think about locking in kind of long-term utility cost as opposed to the variabilities that you might see from a utility based off of the energy procurement for our utilities locally. So, we’ve done a lot of that analysis and a lot of that math and the business case had to be made to not only to our senior leadership but our ownership about why this was a good set of investments.   

Jennifer: I see. And how is sustainability integrated across departments? You’ve mentioned so many different large initiatives that span, it sounds like, multiple teams across your organization. How does sustainability really show up in their goals that they are really focused on? 

Rob: It’s a great question. One of my proudest moments was shortly after we announced that the name of the building was going to be the Climate Pledge Arena, we had a senior leadership meeting amongst our VPs and above, and for about a half an hour, various people within the organization started talking about sustainability and the impact that they thought that this was going to have on their line of business. And I didn’t say a word that entire half hour. So that’s when you know that its really become imbued in the organizational culture. And I’ll give you a couple of small examples. The operations team was talking about what are some of the ways that they could work with our food and beverage partners to reduce the carbon footprint and ensure that our vendors are coming from local restaurants. The team who is working, you know, frankly on admin issues [12:00] were asking questions about office supplies and where they could source greener paper or greener toner for our printers. The team who was thinking about the building operations was saying, “How could we find some net metering solutions so we can understand exactly which of our biggest energy users in the building are active at what point so we can then off cycle some of that load and try to help reduce some of our energy usage in the building?” So, it started to have this really wonderful, billowing out affect where so many other business streams within our arena are taking on that sustainability mantel and really innovating on their own without any direction or guidance from me which is the best kind of innovation. 

Jennifer: Yeah. How do you think that happened where all of these teams naturally already started to think with sustainability in mind? 

Rob: You know, part of it is a real desire, I think, for teams. When you work for a professional sports organization or an arena, there is a real team mentality to it. So, the idea that we’re embracing sustainability at the top from the ownership to the senior leadership, on down, that becomes something that a lot of folks want to buy into because of that team culture. Secondly, I think that’s consistent with the values of our region, right? And a lot of folks who are getting hired by this team are really excited to come and be a part of the Pacific Northwest and our legacy and our history. And that includes environmental activism. I talked about Earth Day, Earth Day was founded in Seattle in 1970, right? So, this is a place that is known as a hot bed of environmental activism. You know, but I think more importantly for me, a lot of folks who have been hired by this organization are really interested in building something new and different from what they’ve been a part of before. I’m a perfect example. [14:00] I have no business working in sports and entertainment, I am an urban planner. You know, no one that I can ever find has ever hired an urban planner to come and work on their arena’s transportation plan. They hire a parking lot attendant manager who gets promoted up through the ranks who can figure out how to best optimize people driving their cars in and out of their garages. They don’t hire people like me who are, kind of, public transit nerds. So, we’re made up of a lot of people within the organization who think that way, and that’s made it easier to adopt a lot of these innovations. 

Jennifer: I see. Well, you mentioned that sometimes it is easy for all of these innovations to get adopted, I am curious to hear about the challenges. What’s been one of your bigger challenges to be able to implement some of your sustainability initiatives. I mean, it sounds like you already have buy-in from the executive level, you’ve named the arena the Climate Pledge Arena, but has been challenging for you? 

Rob: Great question. You know, the idea of finding and collecting all of the data from all these different sources, analyzing that data, and then accounting for the carbon footprint of the building is going to be an enormous challenge. That so far to me has been the thing that we identified that when we open, we’re going to really need to get smart between now and then. We’ve got, obviously, very little scope one emissions, right? There’s a small diesel generator associated with the emergency backup of the building, which we are trying to find other ways to replicate. But outside of that, we don’t really have a whole lot else. But when we think about all of the other things that happen within a building that is as busy as ours, you know, we’ll have 200 programmed events every year so that’s an event 2 out of every 3 nights. And you’ve got, [16:00] you know, 10 to 20 thousand people coming to and from that event, purchasing food, using the restrooms, the clean up of all of those people before and after the events, the total amount of operations of this facility, so collecting all of that data, analyzing all of that data, and then finding ways to really understand the impact of that. Whether that’s scraping invoices from our food and beverage partners to suggest the total greenhouse gas emissions of apples that might be coming from eastern Washington versus impossible burgers coming from somewhere else, and then calculating all of that so we can accurately offset it as part of our commitments, that is going to be an enormous challenge. And that’s what we’re working through right now on the final, kind of, spreads to the building opening this fall is making sure that we’ve got our operations team and our data teams really well integrated so that we can at least have a head start on aggregating all of that data and analyzing it, and then innovating as we continue to learn more as the building operates. So that’s the thing that I’m most freaked out about. If I lose any sleep at night, its about all of that data. Who is going to collect it, how are we going to analyze it and ensure that its not just me walking around with a clipboard every night trying to collect a bunch of data from a bunch of different sources. 

Jennifer:As fans start funneling into the building when the team is ready to play, what’s the one thing that you hope every fan knows about sustainability for the Seattle Kraken and the Climate Pledge Arena? 

Rob: That’s a really great question. When I think about the two things that have really kind of seemed to capture our fan’s attention, for the hockey fans, it’s the fact that we’re collecting rainwater [18:00] off of one quarter of that roof, holding it in a 15 thousand galloon cistern and using that to resurface the ice on our game nights. That seems to be really interesting to a lot of folks. We call that our Rain to Rink Solution. Not any different from that big cistern you might have outside your home or apartment building and use to fill up the community garden or your backyard gardens. But that component I think people are really excited about and we’re hoping to be able to translate that into people wanting to take action on their own around water conservation because that’s so critical. The second is the idea that we’re going to be banning the use of single use plastics. When you stand at the arena’s front door and you look to the west, you can see the Puget Sound, just like the view for you outside your window, Jennifer. And we know collectively the impact those single use plastics are having on health of our Puget Sound, our native salmon and orca population, but also our human health. I heard a damning statistic the other day that as humans, we ingest about a credit card worth of microplastics every week from plastics from our food from the grocery store. 

Rob: Its super scary. And so, the idea that, you know, an artist like Billie Eilish could just come into a building and say, “I’m going to play in your building, but one of the prerequisites, one of the riders is that you can’t have any single-use plastics while I’m in the building.” That was inspirational to us and we thought, if she can ban it for one night, why couldn’t we ban it for 365 days a year? So, we’re not going to be able to ban everything on day one but we’re going to ban most things and then we are going to phase out everything, we hope by the 2024 timeline. So, the idea here for us for inspiring fans to really reduce their plastic use and consumption, I think is going to be a really, really great one, two. 

Jennifer: Awesome. Well, thank you again, Rob, for sharing so much more about your role, how sustainability and transportation really come together so seamlessly, and just more about sustainability for the team and the arena. I’m excited to check out the building and cheer on the team when you guys start. 

Rob: When the puck drops later on this year, Jennifer, we can’t wait to have you come by and take a look. It has been a real honor. You’ve got such an illustrious group of people who have been part of this series. I’m very, very thankful to have been one amongst the many. 

Jennifer: Thank you so much. 

Rob: Of course, thank you. 

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Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.