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Vegas goes green

A city known for excess is learning to manage its resources

Courtesy of Mandalay Bay

In the sprawling, fast-growing desert city of Las Vegas, where a dancing water fountain is a big tourist draw, “green” is more suggestive of dollar bills or the felt on gaming tables than of a governing philosophy or lifestyle. It’s easy, and in some ways accurate, to portray Las Vegas and the Strip—an area that brings in 42 million tourists annually to a collection of mammoth casinos that churn through energy, water, and food at prodigious rates—as the opposite of sustainable.

Consider the apparent energy and resource sink of just a single evening in a casino: the sensory overload of blinking lights, endless buffet tables, ice-cold beverages, and an air-conditioned atmosphere perfectly calibrated to keep you active, alert, and unaware of credit limits. It’s no surprise a building that has no clocks, to limit revelers’ awareness of time, also feels like a space without electrical meters or carbon footprints.

But while Las Vegas’s desert climate, one of the driest in the country, has presented incredible challenges, by embracing its location, the city has also tapped into great potential. The region’s world-class water reclamation program cut per capita water usage 37 percent in the last decade, and the city—which saves roughly $5 million annually powering all government buildings with solar power—boasts some of the nation’s largest solar arrays and its biggest stock of LEED-certified buildings. The city’s iconic welcome sign is now powered by solar energy, a step symbolic of the concrete ways that city leaders and casino magnates are embracing sustainability. And behind the scenes, casinos have enacted dozens of programs that have made those evenings gambling more sustainable than they appear.

“What people don’t realize is that Las Vegas was founded around a spring,” says Lauren Boitel of Green Chips, a regional nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainability in Southern Nevada.

“That’s the only reason people stopped here, because there were resources. Vegas has just come around to the idea that it needs to be a good steward of those resources.”

Nothing speaks to the city’s potential to strain its natural resources, or its renewed commitment to live within its means, like water. Not only did the Vegas metro area, which now has a population of nearly 2 million, grow up atop a spring, but even its name, Spanish for “the meadows,” refers to the wild grasses that grew near the all-important water source.

Having its own water source proved both a blessing and a curse. When the Colorado River Compact—an agreement among several western states to allocate water rights to the Colorado River, which flows roughly 30 miles east of the present-day location of the Strip—was drawn up in 1922, Southern Nevada was still in its infancy. The city of Vegas was only incorporated in 1911. Its youth gave the sparsely populated state less power at the bargaining table, netting it a mere 1.2 percent of the waterway’s annual flow, a fraction of what California and Arizona would claim.

By the time Vegas’s growth, fueled by tourism, started to skyrocket in the 1960s, and the need for additional water resources became evident, it was too late. In 1962, the city’s spring dried up, making Vegas dependent on water pumped from Lake Mead, the man-made reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, for 90 percent of its supply. Residents’ water usage also continued growing. By the late 1980s, city residents were using more water per capita than anybody else in the Southwest: 400 gallons per day, compared to 315 in Phoenix.

Despite these clear warning signs, Vegas didn’t address the issue until a drought hit the region in 2002. According to Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which oversees the city and surrounding region, the Colorado River’s flow that year was just 25 percent of the average, a steep drop that spurred the agency to examine doomsday scenarios. Projections showed the city would soon be exceeding its annual allocation of 300,000 acre-feet of water (literally an acre covered in a foot of water, or roughly 43,560 cubic feet), in the midst of a drought that would continue to shrink the water levels in Lake Mead for the next decade. The SNWA decided the time for half-measures was over.

“We made sure the solution touched everybody,” says Mack. “We didn’t put it on the back of either our residential or resort casino customers. We looked at ways to help conserve water and incentivize everyone.”

The resulting suite of incentives, restrictions, and infrastructure investments has turned Vegas into a model for conservation, one studied by municipalities around the world. According to Mack, the numbers speak for themselves: Since 2002, Southern Nevada has increased its population by more than half a million people and set visitation records, yet has decreased water usage by more than 30 percent.

What may be more impressive is how SNWA achieved community buy-in. Nearly anything a home or business can do to cut water usage is incentivized. Rebates are available for installing low-flow showerheads and swapping grass for native, drought-resistant plants. Seasonal water restrictions, such as a ban on watering during daylight in the summer, are promoted by relentless campaigns, such as the one featuring Deputy Drip. A local team of Water Cops, SNWA employees who drive around the city with cameras in tow, look for violations and help educate and inform residents about water conservation methods. Nearly every garage in Clark County has a sprinkler clock.

While casinos, with their prodigious air-conditioning systems and frigid temperatures, may seem like the biggest culprits, they actually account for just 7 percent of the area’s water usage. Single-family residents make up the lion’s share, 40 percent of the region’s total, with 70 percent of that residential use going toward landscaping. In response, the SNWA instituted a Water Smart rebate program that rewards homeowners who turn over their grass-covered lawns to desert landscaping, paying out $2 per square foot.

Mack says the switch saves 55 gallons per square foot of grass annually, an “astronomical” amount for Southern Nevada. Since the program launched, 180 million square feet of grass has been removed and replaced. If that ground cover was combined into a single strip of sod, it could stretch around 90 percent of the Earth’s circumference. New landscaping ordinances, which prohibit grass in front yards and limit backyards to 50 percent turf, ensure new homes won’t suck up hard-earned water savings. By 2016, per capita water usage had shrunk to just 123 gallons annually.

“Contrary to popular belief, human beings are responsive to seasonal water restrictions, and you can yield significant water use reduction simply by telling people when they should and shouldn’t water,” Mack says. “People will comply and hear you. It works.”

An extensive wastewater treatment and recycling system—including 2,000 miles of pipeline that’s fastidiously checked for leaks—means that “anything that hits a drain gets reclaimed,” according to Mack. While evaporation outdoors is unavoidable, community-wide recycling of water used indoors, 40 percent of the city’s total, means Vegas returns a significant amount of water to Lake Mead. (A wetlands area and river channel near Lake Mead known as the Las Vegas Wash even helps naturally filter wastewater.) Mack says the recycling system is so efficient that even if every shower and faucet in every hotel on the Strip were turned on at the same time, it wouldn’t add to the total amount of water the city draws from Lake Mead, since it would all get reclaimed and returned.

With such robust recycling and reduction initiatives in place, one of the SNWA’s biggest challenges may be finding new ways to reduce water usage. The SNWA partnered with the state’s economic development council in 2014 to invest in WaterStart, a startup incubator that supports small businesses and entrepreneurs working in the field of water management. By partnering with the utility and local clients, such as MGM Resorts, the incubation program gives startups readymade problems to tackle and clients to serve. It’s already brought companies from as far away as Israel and Australia to test out new solutions in the Mojave Desert, such as customized biofiltration.

The push for efficiency and sustainability also extends to some of the biggest players in the city, the casinos. According to Marco Velotta, a planner in the city’s Office of Sustainability, while the city has been working through its conservation challenges over the last few decades, the mega-resorts that line the Strip have been willing partners.

“It’s something our resort industry has been very quiet about,” he says. “They want people to have a good time and enjoy themselves, so they’re not in your face about being sustainable. But more and more, it’s starting to become apparent.”

So as not to disrupt the perception of plenty, exuberance, and entertainment, casinos’ efforts to eliminate waste happen primarily behind the scenes, according to Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts, which includes the namesake casino as well as the Bellagio, CIty Center, Luxor, and Mandalay Bay.

“While the world is moving in this greener direction, we’re just moving faster than most,” he says.

While it’s a challenge for any resort to balance conservation with guest comfort, the battle takes on a completely different dimension in Las Vegas. The scope, in terms of building size, hours of activity, and the energy needed to cool and light towering structures, dwarfs any other place on Earth. Chicago, a city known for its convention business, has 36,000 hotel rooms downtown. Vegas has 150,000 that are rarely out of commission. According to the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority, the national hotel occupancy rate is around 64 percent; in Vegas, it’s 89 percent.

Between extensive recycling and waste-management processes, a big push to utilize LED lighting, and energy conservation, casinos are fully invested in a greener city. Gaming operators went on a binge of green building projects after the 2005 passage of Nevada’s Assembly Bill 3, which offered a decade-long, 50 percent property tax break for LEED-certified structures (so many casinos took advantage of this generous, though ill-conceived, subsidy that lawmakers passed a law to scale it back in 2007). Some, such as MGM, have promoted smarter street designs, such as The Park, a public green space on the Strip covered in native plants, and others have played a big role in the city's solar boom, covering their roofs with solar panels.

By investing in cutting-edge cooling and climate-control systems, and switching out regular lighting with LEDs, MGM Resorts has cut their energy usage by approximately 120 million kilowatt hours at their properties worldwide, despite higher business volume, and have modeled a path to a further 20 percent reduction in five years. In sync with the SNWA’s water conservation strategies, MGM Resorts recycles 99 percent of the water used inside their hotels within 24 hours. The drip irrigation systems on all the resorts’ golf courses, which have been landscaped with desert plants, have wind meters that shut off watering when high winds threaten to increase evaporation.

“You may feel like you’re exuberantly using water in pools or spas,” Siddiqui says, “and while there’s unavoidable evaporative loss, an overwhelming majority of the water here gets recycled, thanks to the city’s investment in infrastructure.”

Perhaps the green initiative most indicative of MGM’s subtle approach is waste reduction. At MGM resorts, guests can’t find any recycling bins, which may lead to the perception of waste. But the focus, says Siddiqui, is letting guests have a luxurious experience. “Let us worry about the trash.” Behind every property, a materials resource system sorts every bag, removing cardboard, plastics, and other recyclables. The process goes beyond paper and plastic: Beer and liquor bottles are crushed and turned into decorative blocks of glass, wine corks are reprocessed and turned into sandals, and plastic room keys are made into picture frames and siding (Caesars even once piloted a program to recycle used cigarette butts). Even the 11,000 tons of annual food waste goes to a better place: a local pig farm, R.C. Farms, where the hogs dine on piles of buffet leftovers. Siddiqui is also developing kitchen hardware and software to track food waste at its source, so less is generated in the first place. A total of 42 percent of the waste generated by MGM properties, or 60,000 tons annually, is diverted from landfills.

The huge recycling efforts by the casinos are supported, in part, by Republic Services, a longtime city vendor that opened North America’s largest, most technically sophisticated recycling center in Vegas last year. The 110,000-square-foot building, covered in solar panels and made in large part from recycled steel, can process 250,000 tons of material a year. Truckloads of recyclables get processed on a one-mile conveyor belt that runs underneath high-tech optical sorters and can be controlled by a tablet. Len Christopher, the facility’s general manager, says he can empty a full truck in just a few minutes, “faster than you can get a latte at Starbucks.” The new plant has helped the city make a huge jump in recycling, processing 25,000 more tons year over year.

To wring even more savings out of its substantial casinos and hotels—and their substantial rooftops—MGM has also invested in solar. In 2014, Mandalay Bay teamed up with NRG Energy, a large national energy company, to install a 20-acre solar array on the roof of the casino that can meet a quarter of the building’s energy needs during peak hours. And that’s just the beginning. This year, MGM, which paid fees to exit the energy grid last fall and buy its own power on the wholesale market, will investigate setting up its own solar power system. Other casinos, including the Wynn, also exited the utility to cut costs. But if MGM sinks a huge investment into renewables, it provides a signal to others that this is a viable energy strategy.

“There’s a lot more flexibility in the wholesale market,” says Siddiqui. ”We have a willingness and interest in doing big, game-changing things, as a way to showcase the viability to hope that others follow.”

MGM is far from the only resort company in Vegas seeing green. Harrah’s installed digital thermometers in every hotel room. Sands, the largest resort operator in the world and the owner of a number of Vegas properties, including the Venetian, has an extensive sustainability program, according to Pranav Jampani, the company’s sustainability director. All of its casino floors are lit 90 percent by LED lights, and new technology for exterior LED lighting, just a few years old, is being rolled out across all its buildings. The company’s Palazzo property is the largest LEED-certified buildings in the country. Every facet of guest operations has been reworked with sustainability in mind, down to the way that rooms are cleaned and guest newspapers are recycled.

“All people think about is partying, gambling, and entertainment, that there’s so much waste coming from resorts on a daily basis,” says Jampani. “But the resorts are doing so much to change that mindset. We’re trying our best to align our goals with climate science.”

Perhaps no single area provides more unrealized and sustainable potential for Southern Nevada than solar power. Blessed with copious amounts of sunlight, the region also benefits from remnants of old electrical infrastructure. Sparsely populated and far from urban centers, it was a perfect place to locate 20th century coal power plants. Now, 21st century utilities are taking advantage of the robust system of power lines to link up massive solar power plants.

The state electric utility, NV Energy, just opened a new 50-megawatt solar plant earlier this year, Boulder II, to serve roughly 25,000 homes in the Vegas market, and power companies from out of state have rushed to tap into Nevada’s solar boom. In March, the 250-megawatt Moapa solar energy project went online; the new generation center on tribal land will power more than 110,000 homes in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, a California-based company called SolarReserve announced a massive, $5 billion solar-generating project, Sandstone, which would be located in Western Nevada and, when finished, generate enough energy to supply about a million homes via concentrated solar arrays (each of the 10 arrays would feature a circle of mirror that would concentrate heat on a 640-foot-tall tower).

According to Boitel, the local utility, NV, has a robust renewable portfolio focused on solar and geothermal energy, with 11.5 percent of Nevada’s energy consumption sourced to renewable energy. More than 360,000 homes in the state are solar-powered, according to figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association, and the state more than doubled its solar capacity last year, from 1,033 megawatts in 2015 to 2,191 megawatts in 2016. It should double that again in the next five years. While much of the Strip still runs on natural gas, there’s lots of room for solar power to grow, especially if the state legislature enacts laws that support home solar use and selling power back to the utility, and more companies such as MGM decide to leave the grid.

Nevada wants solar, says Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for the SEIA. Despite a significant setback for rooftop installation in early 2016, when the state utility commission made rulings that raised rates and fees on solar users and upended the home market, the state is still pushing ahead with utility-level solar projects. Republican Governor Brian Sandoval is pro-solar, and legislation up for consideration in the state legislature this season—bills to reinstate net metering, increase the renewable portfolio standard for utilities, and support community solar projects—suggests a groundswell of support for renewables.

“There’s a widespread recognition that what happened in early 2016 isn’t where the state wants to be,” Gallagher says. “We’re encouraged that Nevada can be a leader in utility-scale solar. And customers want solar. That’s what’s driving it. And utilities need to find ways to give customers what they want.”

“We’ll continue to see that growth no matter what happens on the national level,” says Velotta, who says the city’s commitment to climate protection and renewable power has already saved millions of dollars.

“People’s perception of Vegas is the Strip,” says Boitel. “That’s okay, we have world-class entertainment and dining. But we’re surrounded by the Mojave and the mountains. We have lakes and trails and a diverse environment. People just need to look a little harder to see the city’s connection to nature.”


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