Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sin City bets on green initiative

Original Article

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA // Rising 50-storeys above the Nevada desert, the gleaming Palazzo Las Vegas casino and resort seems to represent everything the city of conspicuous consumption is all about.

Its 3,066 luxury suites boast amenities such as remote-controlled curtains and sunken marble whirlpools. The 9,750 square-metre casino features more than 120 gaming tables and nearly 1,400 slot, video poker and reel machines, where gamblers can place bets in air-conditioned comfort 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is also an indoor shopping mall, with 60 luxury stores and a Broadway-style theatre.

However, the Palazzo does not only represent the ultimate in Las Vegas luxury – it is also the largest building in the world to be certified “environmentally correct”.

Gardens at the Palazzo use moisture sensors, cutting down on water needed for irrigation by more than 75 per cent. The pools are heated by solar power, while air conditioners and lights in the main tower automatically switch off when they sense there is no one in the room. The Palazzo staff recycles its waste and even has valet parkers for guests who show up on bicycles.

When most people think of green and Las Vegas, they are dreaming of all the greenbacks they are going to win.

But the new buzzword in Sin City is sustainability, and the Palazzo is not alone. The Las Vegas strip may be home to kilometres of blinking neon lights and sprawling mega-casinos, but the city is also home to more buildings certified by the US Green Building Council than any other US city of its size.

“I think there are a lot of environmental projects going on here that would surprise people,” said Jeremy Handel, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Three blocks down from the Palazzo, for example, cranes are erecting the CityCenter, an US$8.4 billion (Dh30.8bn) mega-resort which is also aiming for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) designation.

There is the Springs Reserve, a LEED-designated nature and education centre where buildings built partially from straw provide natural cool in the hot desert climate.

The ultimate green structure is still on the books – a planned $200 million, 30-storey “vertical farm” which aims to grow enough food to feed 72,000 people annually.

The busy streets are greener too. Las Vegas buses now steam along on hydrogen gas, while more than 10 per cent of the city’s taxis are hybrids.

The world famous fountains at the luxury Bellagio resort use untreated water, which also irrigates the city’s golf courses.

Meanwhile, the Solar One project, a 64-megawatt facility at the edge of town, will soon power up to 15,000 homes or 22,000 hotel rooms.

And there are other solar and thermal power projects are on the way, according to city and state officials. They have to be: Nevada lawmakers have passed some of the country’s stiffest environmental legislation, requiring 20 per cent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2015.

Last week, Las Vegas hosted the National Clean Energy Summit, where Nevada’s main power company, Sierra Pacific Resources, mapped out plan to invest millions of dollars in geothermal, solar and wind power projects.

“We support the desire to make Nevada the focal point of renewable energy development with the hope of making our state energy independent and reducing carbon and other emissions,” said Michael Yackira, the chief executive of Sierra Pacific.

For Steve Rypka, president of the Vegas-based consulting firm Green Dream Enterprises, it was not always easy being green here.

“Las Vegas is known for being over the top, but I decided to take lemons and make lemonade,” he said. “What better place to try and make a society shift than from here?”

Mr Rypka, who lives and works from a solar-powered home which produces more energy than it uses, works to lobby businesses and individuals to adopt sustainable living habits.

“I want Nevada to go from being known as the ‘Silver State’ to the solar state and lead the nation in clean energy and actually export energy,” he said.

Critics charge that efforts at making Las Vegas green are little more than a poker-table bluff. After all, what does it mean to solar power 20,000 hotel rooms in a city with 197,000 rooms?

Las Vegas has a staggering carbon dioxide output for a city its size: More than 47 million people fly into the city annually, while mega-casinos like the Palazzo and the planned CityCenter, for all their efforts, each pump as much as 160,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

Tourism may earn the city $41.6bn in revenue, but it also has its downside: Las Vegas washes 274,377,327 towels a year and 68,595,331 sheets. Many environmentalists fear its water sources are rapidly drying up.

Still, activists like Mr Rypka say there is reason to be optimistic.
“It is debatable how green is it to build mega-buildings when we have such limited resources on the planet,” he said.

“But no one is forcing the casinos to become more sustainable. At least this is a step in the right direction. If Las Vegas can start becoming green, then any place can.”

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