My wife and I just got back from a weekend trip to Las Vegas for a family get-together. While I went to Vegas when I was 13, this was the first time I've been there since I've been allowed to gamble AND I've been interested in sustainability, energy and water consumption. Aside from the great food and shows, the most surprising thing to me was the lack of sustainable practices on The Strip.
I had forgotten how absolutely huge the hotels/casinos were out there. You get great exercise (which is good because you need it to walk of the buffets) just walking from your room to the pool. But all of that space is air-conditioned, which requires a ton of energy. I would love to see the energy/water consumption details for one of these behemoths.
O.K., I can't honestly say that I was surprised that Sin City wasn't the most sustainable city in the U.S., but for a city that is located in the desert, one would think that resource conservation would garner a little more attention.
Here are some of the thoughts from the weekend and some nice facts on Las Vegas energy and water details I found once I got back:
- The first thing you notice when you land at night is the colorful Las Vegas strip and the light sprouting from the top of the Luxor. According to this article, the light is composed of 39 Xenon bulbs that consume 7 kW each! According to my calculations, that is 273 kW of electricity consumption, which is about 100 times what my home consumes when the AC and a few lights are on (My TED says my home is consuming 2.395 kW this very instant).
- I didn't see one solar panel installed anywhere on the strip. As much energy as the Casinos consume and as much money as they make, you think they would at least put up a small solar array? Why is a light that is visible from space, dancing fountains, a mini Eiffel tower, a live ship battle, and countless other pointless (although the dancing fountains were pretty cool) features all seen as vital, yet not one Casino can figure out how to install solar panels? After all, one of the largest arrays in the US at Nellis AFB is 14 MW of solar PV installed and is just down the road. Why doesn't a Casino install some renewable energy and power some slot machines with it and market that as "Green Gambling"!
- We stayed at the MGM Grand and while they had a tiny pamphlet on their commitment to Sustainability tucked in the welcome packet, they could do a few more things to help guests save energy and water. For one, their thermostat controls looked like they were installed in the 70's. There wasn't even a digital temperature display, just a "Hotter/Colder" dial. They could also suggest guests close the drapes when they are gone for the day. With the hot desert sun pounding down on the floor-to-ceiling glass, closing the drapes would provide a great thermal barrier which would require the thermostat to work less. Aside from energy consumption, the MGM has a Lion exhibit that was extremely impressive and seemed very sustainable. They rotate a group of lions from a nearby ranch and a different pair of lions comes each day. I used to think that maybe there was a tiny chance that if I was in Africa and encountered a lion I could possibly fight it off, but after seeing how big the lions are in real life, I would be lion feed.
- Las Vegas is an oasis in the desert. It's great when you need AC to cool off from the heat, but all those annual visitors and the growing population take a huge toll on the water supply, which isn't exactly plentiful in the desert and considering Las Vegas is suffering from one of the worst droughts on record. I would have like to seen a bigger effort on water conservation ( I really didn't see any references to the drought while I was there). You would think that the Bellagio fountains would at least have a sign somewhere highlighting the water shortage and their efforts at conservation? However, it is nice to see the city of Las Vegas is paying residents $1.50 per sq. ft. of lawn removed and converted to desert landscaping (to conserve water that would be required for the grass). I don't think I saw one flush-less urinal that are getting popular in Atlanta due to our recent drought.
- It's amazingly difficult to find figures on how much electricity is consumed on The Strip. I did find this Forbes.com article titled "Lighting Las Vegas" that quotes Walter Higgins, an old manager of NV Energy :
The city demands 5,600 megawatts on a summer day. By 2015 that's expected to hit 8,000. "We could build everything that has been proposed and still have the same deficit then that we do now," says Higgins.
The Forbes article does go on to say that the Casinos represent 20% of Nevada's electricity demand! 5.6 Giga-Watts is a huge chunk of power and is equal to about 5 large coal power plants. Some of this power comes from Hoover dam, but Hoover dam has a nameplate capacity of 2.08 GW and Nevada only consumes 23 % of the dam's electricity output (I didn't realize that Los Angeles consumes 15% of Hoover Dam's power). If these facts are accurate, Las Vegas only gets about 1/10th of its power from Hoover Dam (actually less because Nevada does have more than Las Vegas going for it). I'd like to see where the rest of the power fueling the gambling machine comes from (unfortunately the answer is probably coal).
- Speaking of Hoover Dam...When we flew out on Sunday morning it was a crystal clear day (thanks Drought!) and we flew right over Hoover Dam. You could even tell from 10,000 feet in the air that the water level in Lake Mead was low. It wasn't until I got back to my computer that I realized just how low the water level actually was. According to this chart that graphs Lake Mead's water level the lake hasn't been this low since 1965!
Summing up a lot of my observations is this great article from Bloomberg highlighting the relationship between the drought, water consumption, and power production in Las Vegas. From the article:
If the drought persists and more water is diverted from the Colorado, the lake could drop to 1,050 feet. That would prevent water from flowing into the intake pipe and cut 40 percent of Las Vegas’s supply -- the disaster Mulroy is trying to head off.Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 to regulate the river and form Lake Mead, wouldn’t be able to produce electricity for the 750,000 people it supplies in Los Angeles.
Currently the lake is at about 1,100 feet. Only 50 more feet to go before disaster. Seems like this would be enough inspiration for a city to really get serious on sustainable initiatives.
- I saw many trash cans, but not too many recycling bins. With all the bottles of water that you need to consume to stay hydrated, you would think there would be a bigger push to recycle them. And I'm guessing a small forest could be saved if the handout advertisements for naked women were recycled instead of thrown on the ground. Does there really need to be someone every 50 yards passing these things out? I'm sure if a guy wants to find a stripper to come to his hotel room he does not need some sleazy guy/girl standing on the corner to hand him a prostitute playing card to do so.
- One of the highlights was a dinner my family and I had at Enoteca San Marco, Mario Batali's restaurant in the Venitian. It wasn't until we asked for some olive oil for our bread that the waiter informed us they were a Certified Green Restaurant (CGR) and he'd be happy to bring us some oil since we asked for it (they don't put out things like oil or water until they are asked for, to prevent waste). After doing some research on the Green Restaurant Associations site and doing a search for CGR in Vegas I discovered that Batali and team are involved in all 3 (yes, there are only 3) of the CGR on the strip. Which leaves the burning question: Why is Mario Batali and team the only restaurant group running Green Restaurants in Las Vegas?
One of the more encouraging efforts that I saw in Vegas was City Center, which is shooting for LEED certification once it is completed. It's good to see that at least some developers are taking sustainable practices into account. Of course this won't be that sustainable if the project never gets completed because it goes bankrupt. City Center (which was located right in the middle of the strip) is partially built, but still has a long way to go. Let's hope that LEED status is realized.
Las Vegas was built on extravagance and consumption. The city wouldn't be complete without all of its lights and fountains. But just because the city doesn't want to ruin the image of sin, doesn't mean that it can't start making some steps in the right direction. If it doesn't start now, it will be forced to do so in the future when the water runs dry and the lights start flickering.
***Update - 9/23/09 - I was glad to see this article on Time this morning covering CityCenter. It looks like the project is moving ahead quicker than I thought. It forgot to mention anything about LEED status though!
***Update - 10/01/09 - Great article on Triple Pundit about Harrah's Entertainment and Sustainability. I obviously overlooked one group's great sustainable efforts.
***Update 1/8/13 - At least it looks like something is being done at the MGM around Sustainability