Woodstock’s Union Arena Becomes America’s First Net-Zero Indoor Ice Rink | Outdoors & Recreation | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Woodstock’s Union Arena Becomes America’s First Net-Zero Indoor Ice Rink

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Published November 3, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


Ice rink at Union Arena Community Center - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Ice rink at Union Arena Community Center

To an ice hockey team, going "net-zero" sounds like a crushing defeat in which no pucks landed in the opponent's goal. But for Union Arena Community Center in Woodstock, achieving net-zero was a hard-fought win that should keep the indoor ice rink in the game for years to come.

In mid-June, the nonprofit community skating center, located on the campus of Woodstock Union High School & Middle School, finished installing the last photovoltaic panels on an expansive rooftop solar array. Completion of the work, one of many energy-efficiency improvements made on the 18-year-old building, gives the arena the distinction of becoming the first net-zero indoor ice rink in the U.S. — that is, one with no net energy costs for its heating, cooling and electricity.

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What Union Arena accomplished is no minor feat. Compared to other large sports facilities, such as Olympic swimming pools and illuminated football stadiums, indoor ice rinks typically have among the highest rates of fossil fuel consumption. Union Arena's success could become a model for the other 20 ice arenas in Vermont — and more than 4,400 throughout North America.

But the arena's $1.4 million energy-efficiency project was about more than giving Woodstock bragging rights for its role in fighting the climate crisis. It was a matter of economic survival, said EJay Bishop, the arena's executive director.

When Bishop was hired in 2014, Union Arena was at a crossroads, he said. Nearly one-third of the facility's $470,000 operating budget — about $140,000 — paid for propane and electricity. For the nonprofit rink, which receives no public financial support, energy bills were steadily climbing year after year, while use of the rink had plateaued. In short, its economic future looked unsustainable.

However, Union Arena's financial woes didn't reflect the community's strong support for its skating center. Banners hanging along the arena's walls and from its rafters attest to the number of youth and adult teams, clubs and leagues that practice and play there.

Open seven months per year, the ice rink is the home of the Woodstock Union High School's boys' and girls' hockey teams — both of which rank among the top seeds in the state in their divisions. It also hosts the Vermont Law School's Fighting Swans Ice Hockey Team, the Woodstock Curling Club, Puck Hogs Hogwash Hockey, the Zambeauties, the Union Arena Skating Club, and the Woodstock Youth Hockey and Skating Association.

"In a healthy year, we run four adult leagues in the evenings," said Bishop, who noted that the pandemic caused one league to cancel its 2020 season. "In the summer months we have curlers, and in the winter months we also have speed skating."

In off-season months when the ice isn't used, the arena hosts lacrosse and field hockey practices, trade shows, and even roller derbies.

In all, about 20,000 people use Union Arena each year, Bishop said, generating an estimated $2.5 million in economic activity for local businesses. Much of that activity is driven by youth hockey tournaments, Bishop added, which draw visitors from throughout New England to the Upper Valley's hotels, inns, stores and restaurants.

Union Arena Community Center - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Union Arena Community Center

Despite heavy rink usage, Bishop explained, there were only so many cost-cutting measures and fee increases that Union Arena could implement before impacting users' experiences and limiting public access. It needed to find other ways to cut costs.

Enter Harold Mayhew, an ice arena specialist and the original architect who designed the $4 million arena in 2003. Mayhew, a Woodstock native who founded Bear Mountain Design in Farmington, Conn., has designed ice arenas and sports complexes around the country, including Kreitzberg Arena at Norwich University in Northfield; Sidney J. Watson Arena at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine; and Ted Harrison Arena at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Now semiretired and living in Florida, Mayhew agreed to help Union Arena reach its ambitious net-zero energy goal.

"Ice rinks are energy pigs, essentially," Mayhew explained in an interview last week. Not only must the arena make ice and keep it frozen, it must also heat the air above the ice so that the room doesn't feel like a deep freezer to skaters and spectators. While keeping the air warm, the building's heating and ventilation system must control condensation, which can melt the ice, make its surface slippery and create other problems in the building, such as mold and mildew. Simply put, the simultaneous heating and cooling consumes a lot of power.

So in 2014, Mayhew joined Union Arena's board of directors and began laying the groundwork for an ambitious multiyear project to overhaul and upgrade the rink's heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting systems.

The project included installing high-efficiency LED lights, computerized controls on all mechanical systems and a new high-efficiency boiler. A new heat-recovery system recaptures waste heat generated by the compressors during the ice-making process and uses it to heat water for taps and showers, refill the Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine, and melt snow in the melt pit. A new cooling tower further reduces the amount of heat ejected directly into the atmosphere.

In all, Mayhew was able to reduce the building's overall energy consumption by more than 65 percent, saving the skating center $90,000 annually.

Installing the rooftop solar array added another $50,000 in savings through a reduced electric bill and the sale of renewable-energy credits to other electricity users. Funds raised from local individuals and businesses paid for all the upgrades and the solar panels.

The arena's refurbished refrigeration system - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • The arena's refurbished refrigeration system

Emo Chynoweth, vice president of Union Arena's board of directors, said the rooftop solar array provides another advantage: Its shade reduces the solar gain, or heat absorbed through the metal roof, in warm weather. This benefit significantly reduces the energy load on the arena's refrigeration system.

The solar panels alone will offset the building's annual carbon emissions to a level equal to planting 2,450 trees, Chynoweth added.

"Some have called [Mayhew] a genius, and I would agree," Bishop said. "Along with some of his peers, he has raised ... ice rinks and their interconnected systems to a whole new level."

Michael Caduto, executive director of the nonprofit group Sustainable Woodstock, said Union Arena's energy efficiencies will help Vermont meet the goals mandated in Act 153, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act. Passed by the Vermont legislature in 2020, the law requires that the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions incrementally to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Indoor ice rinks are a good place to start. Typical ice arenas — those that are used eight months of the year — consume, on average, 1.5 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, and the oldest and least efficient ones consume about 2.4 million, according to data from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. By comparison, the average U.S. household consumes 11,000 kWh annually.

The U.S. has at least 1,550 indoor ice arenas, second in the world only to Canada, which has 2,860, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. Reducing their carbon footprints could make a significant dent in the sporting world's fossil fuel consumption.

As Mayhew put it, "If you can make a hockey rink a net-zero building, you can make anything net-zero."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Power Play"

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