June 30, 2014

ESPN’s $100M digital studio strives to find energy efficiencies

Photos | Pablo Robles
Photos | Pablo Robles
(Top left) John Cristulli, ESPN senior director of facilities, on the new set of SportsCenter in Bristol. (Top upper right) Digital Center 2 is positioned to minimize the heating impacts of the sun. (Top lower right) A data center used to support the center’s operations. (Bottom left) Cristulli in the center’s basement, with its duplicative energy systems. (Bottom center) The new NFL studio will debut in August. (Bottom right) The variable frequency drives used to maximize energy output.

Bristol sports broadcaster ESPN only has just begun tapping the potential of its new $100-million digital studio center, but as the media giant adds more programming into the 194,000-square-foot facility, one key to the operation will be keeping its power usage in check.

And that won't be easy.

The building has five main studios — each with its own production, audio, and media support rooms. It contains computer server rooms the size of most data centers, staff support areas, a visitors' center with high pillars complete with video screens, and a physical plant with duplicative electricity generation and chilled water systems. Everything is state-of-the-art, using the latest technology to keep ESPN's programming on the cutting edge far into the future.

Least to say, the facility uses a lot of power, posing a significant challenge for ESPN, which wants to certify the building under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program.

"We struggle, frankly, in meeting the LEED criteria," said John Cistulli, ESPN senior director of facilities.

ESPN won't achieve the aspiration set forth by parent Walt Disney Co. to make all new facilities up to the LEED Silver level, which is the second lowest of the four USGBC rankings.

However, by positioning the building in just the right way and using certain materials, Cistulli said ESPN's Digital Center 2 should at least meet the basic LEED certification criteria, which include using sustainable materials, reducing energy use, installing renewable energy systems, and other methods like recycling.

"We have a unique opportunity with a very high-use building," Cistulli said. But "the primary interest here is technology and making ESPN's programming better."

Very few movie or television production studios ever achieve any kind of LEED certification, said Jacob Kriss, USGBC spokesman.

USGBC doesn't have specific qualifications for production studios so it's difficult to tell how many have achieved some certification, Kriss said, but the number appears to be less than a dozen.

Some that have met the criteria include The Weather Channel facility in Atlanta, a couple of Warner Bros. facilities in Burbank, Calif., and the Pixar Animation Studios in California, which is a Disney subsidiary.

ESPN's Digital Center 2 has the additional challenge of basically operating as a data center; it must provide enough computer hardware and bandwidth for the building's entire operations.

Standalone data centers often do shoot for some LEED certification, Kriss said, because they are high-end electricity users and have great cooling needs. USGBC has 235 registered data centers in the LEED program.

"There is big-time savings," Kriss said. "Of course, they usually don't have studios along with them."

ESPN opened the first of its five new studios June 22, which is occupied by the company's flagship show SportsCenter, in a 6,400-square-foot space.

The next 8,500-square-foot studio is set to open in August, housing professional football programming. ESPN has yet to decide/announce what will go into the remaining studios.

The $100 million Digital Center 2 was funded partially by the state as a way to further anchor ESPN to Bristol. Under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's First Five initiative, ESPN received $25 million in loans, grants, and tax exemptions for construction, worker training, and equipment.

That and all the other investment went to making the facility as up-to-date as possible, to the point where ESPN believes it can handle the next one or two generations of technological upgrades to production equipment.

"We call it, 'Future-Proof,'" said ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle.

To keep all this state-of-the-art equipment from exploding the facilities' carbon footprint, ESPN took advantage of every environmental benefit financially possible. The building is oriented to minimize the amount of heat absorption from the sun; the fiberglass and metal panel that constitutes the building's skin acts as a constant venting system; and the brick field surrounding the facility absorbs heat in the summer and melts snow in the winter.

For the studios, the only major efficiency measure was switching out all the lighting to LED bulbs. That move alone reduced the building's energy consumption 70 percent compared to Digital Center 1, built in 2004.

The 50,000-square-foot physical plant that powers, heats, and cools the facility does have duplicate equipment, to ensure ESPN's programming is always on. The financial loss from going offline is simply too great, Cistulli said.

"I am the redundancy fool of the place. I will not have a power loss on my watch," Cistulli said. "Still, we managed to wring every wasteful kilowatt hour of electricity out of this building that we can."

The facilities' team reduced kilowatt hours by using equipment with variable frequency drives that ramp output up and down based on need.

"All of these savings together contributed to the return on investment," Cistulli said.

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