Neon Green

In honor of Earth Day (April 22), writer T.R. Witcher looks for sustainability progress behind our city’s (mostly) misleading façade.

When land and resource economist Josef Marlow was preparing a study about Las Vegas earlier this year, the title of his report, “Growth and Sustainability in the Las Vegas Valley,” had his colleagues in the Tucson, Ariz., office of the nonprofit Sonoran Institute shaking their heads. “People were asking whether it was an oxymoron,” he says. It’s a fair question, even for those of us who live here. His answer? “On the surface it looks like one of the most unsustainable places on the planet. But there’s a lot of stuff under the surface.”

Stuff beyond the city’s glam and glitz includes the new Bus Rapid Transit, coordinated water policy planning and landmark green projects such as CityCenter and the Springs Preserve, which is a showcase of sustainability that rivals anything in the Sonoran Desert. But a look around our valley on this Earth Day (April 22) will show there’s still much more for us to do—especially given that the institute predicts 500,000 more people will be moving to the Las Vegas area over the next few decades.

Take water. Despite the aggressive conservation efforts started by the Southern Nevada Water Authority—most notably its turf-replacement rebate, where homeowners are paid to rip out their lawns and replace them with xeriscaping—water demand is on pace to outstrip supply. Right now the average Las Vegan still uses more gallons per day than his counterparts in Tucson and Albuquerque, N.M. (The Sonoran report recommends residents cut back 40 percent on indoor and outdoor water usage, and that, to get us there, the authority use more aggressive water pricing.)

We’re not doing that well with recycling, either. Since 1991, the state has had a goal of recycling 25 percent of its solid waste. According to the Division of Environmental Protection, between 2006 and 2007, Clark County’s recycling rate jumped from 15.4 percent to 19.4 percent, which not only is beneath the target but also is far behind the recycling rates in Douglas County (50.5 percent) and Carson City (40.3 percent), not to mention the national average (35 percent). According to a report from the Southern Nevada Health District, our recycling rate actually dipped to 18.9 percent in 2008.

What would help get us closer? “The Valley should absolutely go to single-stream recycling on the residential side,” says Len Christopher, CEO of Evergreen Recycling, whose company recycled more construction waste from CityCenter last year than Republic Services collected from homes across the Valley. This single-stream system, in which all materials are comingled, would not only encourage more recycling but cut down on CO2 emissions by requiring fewer trash-day pickups. “That’ll help tremendously,” he says. “You have to make it easy for people to participate.” One area in which the Valley has seen success is in promoting tougher energy standards for new homes. In Southern Nevada in 1998 a meager 91 homes were energy-compliant, says Annette Bubak, president of NV Energy Star Partners, a coalition of developers, environmentalists and the Environmental Protection Agency. Now there are 80,000 homes. That means we’ve saved the equivalent of 227 million pounds of coal.

“There’s better awareness than there has been historically here about what things are viable to do in the desert and what things are not,” says architect Eric Roberts of SH Architecture, one of the Valley’s leaders in sustainable design. He says more and more homeowners are interested in on-site renewable energy generation such as solar or wind, as well as water conservation. His only concern is that with the stalled economy, “things will go back to ‘faster, cheaper.’” Also below our neon surface, Las Vegas is in position to take advantage of its chief attribute: abundant sunlight. Earlier this month, UNLV submitted a $45 million proposal to the Department of Energy to fund a research center that is meant to be a one-stop shop for all things related to solar power, including worker training for solar manufacturing. Perhaps this will help Nevada achieve its ambitious renewable portfolio standard of 25 percent by 2025, meaning utilities must provide that percentage of energy from renewable sources. “Nevada is doing a great job,” says Chris Brooks, director of Bombard Renewable Energy, one of the largest photovoltaic suppliers in Nevada. “They could do better. That’s up to our state Legislature to mandate the utility to do better, but the utility has done a great job in responding to the mandates that they’ve been given.”

There is no shortage of green councils and task forces in town, and municipal governments now have at least a couple of sustainability gurus helping to coordinate green activities. The city of Las Vegas runs a Green Building Program that provides rebates for builders who bring new or existing builders up to sustainable codes, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. (This applies to city-owned buildings, too, and brings us closer to standards pioneered long ago by cities such as Portland, Ore., and Scottsdale, Ariz.) Las Vegas also participates in a pilot program called Green Chips, which will perform energy audits and retrofits for 10 low-income households. And most of the city’s fleet of vehicles runs on alternative fuels. (The county is also converting some of its 2,600 vehicles.)

“Over the last couple of years we have managed to put more emphasis on the issue of sustainability,” says Randy Lavigne, executive director of the Las Vegas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which has been a leader in the push for a more sustainable region. “The city and county are much more alert to the kinds of things they need to be doing.”

But for sustainability to really take hold, the city may have to work harder to change its image. Cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle may benefit as much from the perception that they are environmentally progressive as they do from actually being progressive.

Last year Clark County started an Office of Sustainability, from which has come dozens of progressive policies. Chief among them is a federally funded program to audit and retrofit 20-25 of the county’s largest energy-consuming properties—to help the county meet an aggressive goal of reducing its energy usage 10 percent every five years until 2050. The department is 30 percent toward meeting its first five-year goal.

Other programs work to mitigate air pollution. One proposal, called the Truck Stop Electrification Program, would provide electrically generated heat and air conditioning to truck drivers when they stop for the night at truck stops, so they don’t have to run their engines. If funded, the program could cut CO2 emissions in trucks that use it by 93 percent.

So, all in all, the county that is home to the Las Vegas Strip is now actually a “little bit ahead of the curve” relative to other counties across the country, Sustainability Director Lesa Coder says. And it’s about to get better, she says. “Now it’s time for us to go into the community and share our best practices with each other.”