Las Vegas Saves Water, Bets $65M on Energy

Bloomberg New Energy Finance -- Water is a bigger concern than energy for the longevity of Las Vegas as a tourist destination and place to live, according to Tom Perrigo, sustainability officer for the city.

“We have more control over energy,” he said. “It’s obviously a big concern, but we’re an optimal region of the world for solar power. We have some fairly good wind resources and lot of geothermal resources in the state. Water, though, we only have so much control over.”

The southwest of the U.S. has suffered recurring droughts since the beginning of this century and resources from its main water source, the Colorado River, are declining.

Perrigo said aggressive conservation programs in the city have allowed Las Vegas to reduce water consumption by 36 billion gallons between 2002 and 2011, at a time when roughly half a million people added to the population.

Las Vegas, known for its bright lights and casinos, is also an over-the-top oasis with pools, fountains and water rides. Visitors to the Venetian Las Vegas can hop on a gondola and float through the canals of an indoor replica of Venice.

Perrigo said this may look wasteful, but these sources are not the city’s main guzzlers. “If you look at the hotels -- a lot of the fountains and floating pirate ships -- a lot of that is reclaimed water on site,” he said.

Perrigo pointed out that the hotel industry uses just 6 percent of the water in the community. The main culprit, he told Clean Energy & Carbon Brief, is residential use.

Q: How can Las Vegas sustain its 24-hour, bright light lifestyle?

The consumer sees bright lights, fountains and lush golf courses, but the resort industry and the community years ago began re-tooling how we provide those services. We have water treatment facilities that re-route treated water to golf courses so they’re using reclaimed water. All the water we use is treated and returned to the Colorado River. As far as energy is concerned, the hotels have been building not only new buildings to a LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standard but they have also been retrofitting existing buildings either to LEED or some other green standard. We have one of the most energy-efficient economies in the country [when comparing energy consumption to gross regional product]. We also have more square feet of certified LEED buildings per capita than any other state in the country.

Q: What adds to the city’s energy bill?
A: Our highest energy expense year was right around 2008, 2009, 2010. We were spending about $15 million a year on energy and it breaks down to roughly: a third for streetlights, a third for wastewater treatment and a third for city buildings. We retrofitted our streetlights to LED [light-emitting diode] and cut that consumption roughly in half. At our wastewater treatment plant we’ve been putting in engines that run digester gas. We’ve been improving those with catalytic converters. We’ve also installed 3 megawatts of solar out there. Buildings are probably the biggest challenge. We have roughly 140 city facilities and it’s a combination of conservation and whatever kind of onsite renewable we can deliver. We’ve got almost 2 megawatts of solar across 28 city facilities. At the same time we’ve retrofitted about 10 of our most intense energy-using buildings, cutting energy consumption by about 30 percent in those buildings.

Q: Do you have a renewables budget?
A: No. In the last four or five years, everything we’ve done is either with tax credit bonds, utility rebates or grants and we’ve been able to put all that together and leverage those resources to do about $65 million worth of projects. The overall payback across all those projects is just under 15 years. Solar has a longer payback, but the advantage of a public agency versus a private agency is we’re not looking at our quarterly share price. [We consider] the benefits in terms of creating jobs, creating momentum around a clean tech economy and benefits to the environment. We make investments for the long-term benefit of the community, in a financially responsible way.

Q: Who’s using all the water in the city?
A: It’s mostly turf in residential areas that’s the biggest user. The water district pays people to remove turf in their yards and put in drought-tolerant desert landscaping. People move here from other parts of the country where they expect to have a big green lush lawn; they want to import that culture to this desert community and it just doesn’t work. There are very tough enforcement measures to make sure people aren’t wasting water or putting in turf where they’re not supposed to. We have a lot of room to go before we even begin worrying about some of the industrial and commercial water use.

Q: From a marketing perspective, does Las Vegas need to be seen as green?
A: I used to ask some of the hotels: ‘Why don’t you promote this [sustainability] more? I think there are a lot of people out there who care about this and would be more inclined to want to come here.’ They said: ‘Typically when people want to come here they don’t want to think about that stuff so we just take care of all of it. Furthermore, it could impact how you’re rated if you promote that you’re a very sustainable hotel.’ The thinking was that must mean you are somehow giving something up in terms of luxury and opulence. The resort industry is kind of changing the way these rating agencies think about green hotels.

From a larger perspective, there is that image that is presented out to the world about Las Vegas. It’s what you see in the movies. It’s the brand: What happens here, stays here. Obviously that’s very important to our economy and so how do you continue to create this great experience for entertainment and blowing off steam and having a good time, and at the same time letting people know that it’s being done in a way that’s very responsible? I don’t know the answer to that right now but a lot of people are thinking about it.

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