A few years back, in the heart of the Great Recession, Southern Nevada’s municipal governments did something remarkably grown-up: They invested in our sustainability infrastructure.
Not impressed? Consider this scenario: You’re getting a $5,000 refund for your 2012 taxes. You could make a down payment to replace your functional but unfashionable 2007 car. Or you could pay to have your aging home retrofitted with energy-efficient improvements that will lower your power bills. Neither option is blowing your wad on booze and shoes, but the second one is the more mature of the two. It requires commitment and delays gratification.
In a community where many residents don’t put down roots, such a long-term investment is meaningful. On a larger scale, this is what Henderson, Las Vegas and Clark County did when—following President Obama’s lead—they got serious about sustainability.
Clark County accepted the U.S. Department of Energy’s challenge to reduce consumption by 20 percent by 2020. To get there, it has retrofitted buildings with efficient lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Three facilities got photovoltaic solar systems, and the county is submitting two projects for LEED certification. Between 2007 and 2011, the program saved $17 million.
Henderson has upgraded performance at 45 buildings and six parks, and retrofitted 28,000 streetlights, saving about $2 million per year in energy and water costs. The city has also built two LEED Gold-certified public buildings.
By operating more efficiently, Henderson hopes to set a good example for residents, says Ned Thomas, a city planner who oversees sustainability. (Residents can do their part through such programs as single-stream recycling and EnergyFit Nevada.) “The things we’re doing today connect to where we want to go,” he says. “We’re always looking 15 to 20 years out.”
Las Vegas, meanwhile, envisions becoming the country’s first net-zero major metropolitan area, cancelling out its use of resources through conservation, energy generation, recycling and composting. The new Las Vegas City Hall is LEED Gold-certified, 80 percent of the city’s streetlights were retrofitted for energy efficiency, and a 3-megawatt solar system was installed at its wastewater treatment plant. To help reach its goal of a 50-50 split between landfill and recycling for public waste, Las Vegas placed recycling bins in all of its parks.
The changes have saved 200 million gallons of water and $4.4 million in energy costs since 2008, according to the city’s January 2013 sustainability report. Of course, these savings come at a cost. Las Vegas, for example, has put $65 million into its sustainability program, including city funds, bonds, federal stimulus money and utility rebates.
Like any institutional investment, these outlays make sense, providing they yield returns—both tangible and intangible. That $5,000 you spend upgrading your own home will lower your power bills, sure, but more important than that, it makes you a more engaged and permanent part of your community.