Pure Genius

Vegas' latest magic trick: boosting green in a desert of excess

Posting in Cities

Las Vegas' sustainability officer admits that his city--an 'island in the desert'--is not a very sustainable place. But between the government's fleet of electric bikes, a residential lawn trade-in program and hotels' behind-the-scenes energy savings, this city of neon might turn green yet.

Thomas Perrigo, the City of Las Vegas’ sustainability officer, admits that his city is—by definition--not a very sustainable place. But in a conversation last week, Perrigo explained to me that much of Vegas’ sustainability initiatives are happening behind the scenes (so visitors can enjoy a fully artificial panorama). Not convinced? I wasn’t either, until I heard about the city’s electric bike initiative and remarkably successful lawn rebate program. (As for composting in the rooms at the Wynn Las Vegas: Don’t hold your breath.)

When we think of the greenest cities in the country, Las Vegas doesn’t exactly come to mind. Does it deserve that reputation?

That’s a good question. By definition, it’s not a very sustainable place. It’s a island in the desert, and it’s difficult to provide everything the community needs. It has a reputation as a city of excess, and over the years we’ve promoted that because it’s a tourist destination.

Hotels are way ahead on sustainability. What's interesting to me is that they do a lot of it behind the scenes, so the consumer isn’t bothered with recycling or not. MGM Resorts and Harrah’s—those two make up 80 percent of all properties on the strip—have both been recognized as top green corporations. [Since 2003, Harrah’s has reduced energy use by an estimated 163 million kilowatt-hours a year; reduced carbon emissions by an estimated 106,000 metric tons; and reduced water consumption by more than 200 million gallons a year.]

So do we deserve the reputation? Yeah, I guess we’ve promoted that. But the story today is really different.

What’s the story there now?

There are about 2 million people in the valley and about 600,000 in the city of Las Vegas. In the city of Las Vegas, we leveraged our $5 million block grant money and are investing almost $50 million in renewable energy, with substantial investments in solar.

We’re investing in about 4 megawatts of solar, which will provide about 20 percent of the power at the wastewater treatment plant; and nearly 2 megawatts of solar on covered parking structures on about 30 facilities. That will help offset the cost of energy at those facilities, but what we really like is that it will promote solar use.

We will have electric plug-ins at all our solar-covered parking facilities, so you can go to rec center, work out, plug in your car--powered off the sun--and go home. How great is that?

About all this water you need to bring into the desert: What are you doing to consume less?

Our allocation of Colorado River water was put together years ago when they didn’t anticipate as much need for water. The whole valley is kind of a bowl, so it’s like one giant recycling area. If we draw out 100 gallons, consume 20 and put 80 back in the river, we get credit for 80.

The big user of water is irrigation for landscaping, and that’s mostly residential. People moved here from all over the country and want a yard that looks like the yard they used to have, with shrubs, trees and grass. So we’ve been educating people on how to have a beautiful landscape that’s more desert appropriate, with drought-resistant plants. Southern Nevada Water Authority is providing an incentive: For every square foot of turf you remove you get a buck fifty. They’ve made amazing progress in water conservation. So as we’ve been growing, our water usage is way down.

[According to SNWA, 147 million square feet have been converted from grass to desert-friendly cover, through 42,000 participants, conserving 8.2 billion gallons annually.]

What’s the most challenging aspect of promoting sustainability?

We started at ground zero about two years ago. With any new initiative, you can count on 10 percent knowing about it and supporting it;20 percent hating it; and the rest are ready to be swayed one way or another. We thought we’d target the 10 percent and cultivate the 70 percent that is ready to be swayed. But what’s interesting is that people have really embraced sustainability, so you have about 80 percent of the crowd supportive. That’s a hurdle we’ve gotten over.

As the program develops, the biggest challenge is technical knowledge—information on financing tools, energy conservation, our next phase of solar, legal hurdles, statutory hurdles. So it’s the constantly evolving technology and financing that is the biggest challenge.

What’s new in transportation?

The regional transportation commission is purchasing electric bikes and locating them at a dozen buildings downtown. So if you go through the training, you can check out the bikes and use them to get back and forth to meetings rather than checking out a fleet vehicle.

I met with facilities folks to see where bike lockers would go, and they are in the process of purchasing the bikes, so [the program] should be up and running in September or October. I’ve already gotten calls from departments asking if they could use the bikes.

Have you ridden one?

Yes. I love them. I’m in the process of retrofitting one of my old racing bikes into an electric bike. The conversion kits cost $300 to $500 and come with the motor and the battery. My daughter wants a car, so she’ll drive my car and I’ll drive the bike. It feels just like riding a [traditional] bike, but they have a lot of torque. You’d be surprised.

So are you convinced [that Las Vegas is working to banish its un-green reputation]?

I have to say, I’m impressed with the bike program and the turf-swap program.

We don’t want visitors to think it’s painful to come here. We want them to have a nice, relaxing visit. People ask me about recycling and about the fountains at the resorts, and I tell them it’s all taken care of. It’s just not in your face.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure