SONOMA, Calif. — I am standing on the roof of Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point), looking down on a really big solar panel, which is reflecting the sun right back in my face. This is not a feel-good demonstration project. As the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350 roars and burns up gas below me, the 1,652 Panasonic/Sanyo panels (see photo below) scattered at five places around the track (including at Turn 10) are providing 41 percent of the track’s power. That’s 353 kilowatts of solar, and it came on line in June.
From my perch, I can also see — could that be right? — a flock of sheep grazing near the entry to the track. There are 3,000 of them, and they’re cheaper, greener and easier to maintain than lawnmowers, track officials say. There are 15 owl boxes, too, as well as recycled paper in the viewing suites, biodegradable wraps at the concession stands, water-free urinals, and a “clean air” program that plants 10 trees every time the green flag drops.
It’s going to be a while before NASCAR features electric car races, though. As 1985 Indy winner Danny Sullivan told me, the cars are fast (because electric motors have 100 percent torque at zero rpm) but don’t make enough noise for red-blooded Americans to get excited. Another issue is range — as the name implies, the Save Mart 350 is 350 miles long, and electric vehicles can’t yet go the distance. But a new Europe-based series, the EV Cup, is coming to California this year for some races uniquely suited to the EV’s capabilities.
The track owners seem sincere about going green. The Sprint Cup Series cars that nearly destroyed my hearing run on E15 ethanol, and seem no less thunderous for it. NASCAR actually claims a 3 percent horsepower gain.
Solar racetracks are a growth industry. Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania has installed a 25-acre, $16 million solar farm that will generate 3 to 4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, powering all race operations and even sell power back to the grid. (Infineon will do that, too.)
“The solar launch has been terrific on a professional and personal level,” Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon, said at a track press conference before the race. “The sustainable initiatives we’ve been taking at the raceway may seem counterproductive to some people, but this is Northern California and the environment is a big issue here. It’s important for us to demonstrate that there are sustainable options.”
Some people are surprised that Panasonic (which recently acquired Sanyo) is even in the sustainability business, since it’s primarily known in the U.S. for making television sets and cameras. But Panasonic also makes the battery cells for the Toyota Prius and the Tesla Roadster. And it has a big head start in Japan, where its offerings include home fuel cells, solar and efficient appliances. Jim Doyle, president of Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company (which also caters to big concert venues and stadiums), said in Sonoma that the company wants to be the number one green innovation company in the electronics industry by 2018. Here's Doyle on video talking about the Infineon solar installation:
Solar panels at a race track are good advertising, especially since they also power the huge LED sign (twice as efficient as the old one, which used 7,000 incandescent bulbs) on Highway 37. The sign is connected to a huge Sanyo panel mounted on a tracker that follows the sun during the day.
Obviously they still go through a lot of fossil fuel at Infineon, but the solar installation is supposed to save 34,000 barrels of the stuff over 30 years. Later in the summer, Infineon will host an Accelerating Sustainable Performance Summit at Sonoma, which spotlights biodiesel from the Official Renewable Fuels Provider, Amyris. Zero-emission electric motorcycle races have also been hosted at Infineon as part of the TTXGP U.S. Championships.
It is still entirely possible, even probable, that you will come to Infineon or other NASCAR tracks for that high-octane thrill, spend the day, and not even notice the green stuff. Frankly (except for the sheep), it’s subtle. That solar installation at Turn 10 doesn’t exactly leap out at you. Maybe it needs a big sign. “This Track Powered by Solar!”