The Report

Verde Las Vegas?

Verde Las Vegas?

Posting in Sustainability | From Issue 11 February 17 & 24, 2014

Sin City grew up gambling with its resources, but its current strategy is focused on the long game and, dare we say it, sustainable investment.

Convergence. That's the word that Gwen Migita, vice president of sustainability and community affairs for Caesars Entertainment Corporation, uses to describe the city-wide movement toward a more environmentally and socially sustainable Las Vegas.

On the one hand, the city is coping with the current resurgence downtown—growth that could easily send its electricity and water consumption skyrocketing. Much of the ink around that is spilled on Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh: the $350 million Downtown Project he kicked off to revitalize the city, support small local businesses, improve schools and make Las Vegas it a techie startup hub, as well as his Project 100 to bring better transportation options to Sin City. 

But Fremont Street's rebirth started before the shoe mogul became the city's de facto ambassador, says Rick Van Diepen, executive director of Green Chips, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit working with public and private stakeholders on clean energy and development projects. "[Hsieh's] efforts are an endorsement that we care about our quality of life. You can feel it, the investment in the community, the environment, the social fabric," he says, crediting former Mayor Oscar Goodman for seeing the potential in downtown. "The seeds were definitely planted, and then Tony kicked it into hyperdrive," he says.

On the other hand is evidence of an increasingly eco-friendly Las Vegas Strip. 

It's true. You might take a cynical view, and say any efforts to conserve energy and water in a city virtually defined by excess will look good on paper. But consider this: Las Vegas has reduced its energy consumption by 22 percent since 2010. What's more, 8 percent of what it uses now comes through a collective 5.1 megawatts (MW) of solar panels. Another 15 MW of solar capacity is in the works, and additional conservation efforts should cut consumption by another 13 percent. There have also been inroads made in water savings and recycling, especially in new housing developments (though many downtown homeowners refuse to give up their bright green lawns). Now, Migita says, the downtown's renewal and the Strip's green awakening are converging, amplifying each other.

Could that "convergence" be the answer to the other "C" words—conspicuous consumption—that have defined Las Vegas nearly since its founding?

"It comes down to everyone doing their part," Migita says. "Industry and government setting the canvas, entrepreneurs like Tony but also others—advocates that come to the table to build the convergence. Everyone's end goal is making Las Vegas a beautiful livable place to live and work."

That trend is also seen in more residents choosing to live close to city center. "On the Strip we're starting to see high-rise residential units, and the local government is trying to put in walkable communities," says Tom Perrigo, chief sustainability officer for the city of Las Vegas. "Just like any other city, we're pushing hard" toward that kind of urban planning. "The challenge is that while our suburban density is high, it's just below what makes transit works, so we're looking for areas downtown where we can build better transit."

Down on the storied Strip, casinos and hotels have learned to exploit some of their basic infrastructure to find opportunities to reduce waste. 

For example, waste oil from kitchens serving the nearly 40 million annual visitors is collected and used to help power city busses, running on biodiesel. Recognizing the value of their considerable waste streams, casinos now operate their own "mini-MRFs" (small municipal recycling facilities). For Caesars, which has reduced its landfill contribution by 25 percent, this means a brigade of employees comb through refuse and pull out recyclables—and also a surprisingly high number of non-garbage assets. These include not just the expected items, such as flatware, but also real head-scratchers, like ironing boards, Migita says.

Some of the efficiency gains casinos and hotels have made were born from necessity. 

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has gotten serious about water conservation—as if it has a choice, with the Colorado River in the midst of a 14-year drought and levels in Lake Mead, where the city extracts its water, falling dangerously low. All of these factors have products a per-capita reduction in water consumption of about 40 percent since 1989, despite the city's significant growth. The Strip, in particular, has developed closed-loop water use systems that keep its consumption to just 7 percent of water in southern Nevada.

This being Vegas, appearances are important, which is why news that the city's iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign had been converted to solar power (the switch was flipped during the Consumer Electronics Show in January) was a headline grabber. 

"After the Bellagio fountain, the sign is our most recognizable icon," says Van Diepen from Green Chips, the group responsible for the project. "So it is a symbol, yes, and also an introduction to our city and our region as having an ethic about clean energy."

But lest anyone look at the sign as window dressing, he adds that just behind the sign, MGM Resorts is installing enough solar panels on Mandalay Bay's 20-acre roof to generate 6.2 MW of energy, which is expected to supply 20 percent of the building's power demand at peak use. "Things like that," Van Diepen says, "blow people's minds."

Photo courtesy Marco Verch, Flickr

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure