Will Vegas be the First ‘Net-Zero’ City in America?

Sustainability Officer Says the City is No Flash in the Pan

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Tom Perrigo is chief sustainability officer for the city of Las Vegas, Nev.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Fretwell is city manager of Las Vegas, Nev.

Marco Velotta is a management analyst in the city of Las Vegas sustainability office.

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Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 11:52 am

If you’re one of those people who think the glitter of Tinseltown will never last, Tom Perrigo has some news for you.

“Las Vegas will be around for hundreds of years.”

That’s how Perrigo, chief sustainability officer for the city of Las Vegas, opened his latest semi-annual report entitled Sustainability in ACTION. For him, part of the challenge is overcoming the perceptions people have about Las Vegas being a “wasteful and unsustainable place.”

“It’s sort of a grand illusion,” he said about the city’s image as an oasis of excess. “We build on this brand of Las Vegas… because that’s what brings tourists in. That’s the engine behind our economy. But, if you look behind the curtain, what you’ll find is a hotel industry that is very progressive when it comes to sustainability in terms of recycling, energy conservation and water conservation.

“What the visitors see are lush golf courses, lush landscaping, huge fountains, floating pirate ships and all this other stuff; but what they don’t see is that those golf courses are fed with reclaimed water, and at some of the hotels, all that water they use for fountains and landscaping is all water that was reclaimed on site. What they don’t see is that, from 2002 to 2011, we reduced our water consumption by some 36 billion gallons (per year) and we added half a million people to our population. They don’t see all that because we don’t really promote it.”

“So, it’s almost like one of the best known cities in the world is actually its best kept secret,” Perrigo said.

But Las Vegas doesn’t plan on keeping that secret for long. In fact, according to Perrigo’s semi-annual report, the city’s ultimate goal is to become “America’s first net zero city” – a bold statement, even in a city known for bold statements.

“Well,” said Perrigo, “these are stretch goals. It’s great to talk about, but it isn’t like we’ve figured out the magic formula to get there. So, yes, we’re very aggressive about it, but I don’t think that goal is all that unusual compared to what other cities are pushing to achieve right now,” he said.

Much of what Las Vegas has achieved in recent years has been focused on city-owned facilities and operations. Perrigo said there hasn’t been a “real appetite” for new ordinances to push citizens toward green building or more conservation.

Instead, he said, the local government has committed itself to showing leadership by testing various models and setting a good example. A big part of that effort has been getting city staff on the sustainability bandwagon.

When Perrigo was asked to manage the city’s sustainability program in 2006, there wasn’t a budget for any large-scale initiatives; and even some department heads within city government were dubious about the cost effectiveness of renewable energy and conservation.

“But those of us who were committed to it went back and sharpened our pencils and developed strategies to move these things forward,” he said.

“With any initiative, there are going to be early adopters; and then there’s going to be the large middle that’s kind of ambivalent and will be happy to go along or not. And, there’s going to be the detractors; those who will actively fight against the initiative. So we really worked hard, especially in the leadership – the city manager and the council – to cultivate the early adopters and find those key people in the departments that were going to be supportive. We tried to figure out strategies … to win the hearts and minds of the large middle,” he said, “and to sort of silence the detractors over time.”

Perrigo said his advice to new sustainability managers is a quote from Winston Churchill: “’Never, never, never, never, never, never give up.’ I don’t know how many ‘nevers’ there are in there,” he laughed. “But, everything you do is going to be new and change practices, procedures or something for somebody, so you have to be very strategic in how you approach that. And, you’re going to have people who flat-out say ‘No.’”

Gauging the level of resistance and figuring out when to push forward and when to step back is a big part of the learning curve, he said. “So, you never give up. You just try to learn how to be strategic and keep pushing forward.”

In 2008, the Las Vegas City Council took ownership over sustainability by adopting its first Sustainable Energy Strategy that set targets for city operations, city codes and the community. Since then, the city has, among other things:

• Constructed more than 5 megawatts of renewable energy, including solar covered parking structures at 30 city facilities;

• Made energy improvements to more than 1 million sq. ft. of city buildings;

• Purchased two electric and two plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and installed charging stations at six city facilities (nearly 100 percent of city vehicles now run on alternative fuels);

• Introduced recycling at parks and city facilities, and now half of all waste is being recycled;

• Converted more than 8 acres of grass to artificial turf;

• Added more than 125 miles of bike lanes and started a bike share program;

• Upgraded 42,000 streetlights to LED lamps that will save the city about $2 million per year in energy and maintenance costs;

• Built its new city hall to LEED Silver standards, reducing energy costs by more than $500,000 annually;

• Achieved a 24 percent reduction in annual energy consumption by city operations, saving $4.4 million since 2008; and

• Saved 200 million gallons of water at city facilities.

Las Vegas City Manager Elizabeth “Betsy” Fretwell said these initiatives are only the beginning.

“City leadership has made sustainability a top priority in Las Vegas,” Fretwell said. “The results of the program can be seen all over the city, from recycling bins in city parks, to our energy efficient streetlights on nearly every street, to our sustainable City Hall with its iconic solar trees.”

Fretwell became city manager in 2009 and a year later was recognized by the Sierra Club with the Southern Nevada Environmental Stewardship Award. In 2010, she moved the city’s sustainability program out of the Planning and Development Department and created a dedicated Office of Sustainability, reporting directly to her. As part of the city manager’s Office of Administrative Services, the sustainability team became more directly accessible to Fretwell and the city council.

New staffing was paid for in part by an Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant, but since then the office has been funded with the very money its programs save in water and energy. In this way, Las Vegas continuously reinvests in even more conservation efforts.

“Since becoming an initiative, sustainability has elevated the city to a globally recognized leader because it has helped save the city money, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and has created jobs,” Fretwell said.

So, what’s next for sustainability in Las Vegas?

“We’ve picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit,” Perrigo said. So, in the next three to five years, his priorities will include performing energy and water retrofits on about 140 city-owned facilities; maximizing the potential for on-site solar energy generation; optimizing the use of the city’s groundwater supplies; redoubling the city’s water and energy conservation efforts; and continuing to replace natural grass with synthetic turf or desert landscaping.

“Obviously, water is a huge issue for a desert city,” Perrigo said. As a result, he said, Las Vegas has become one of the most water-smart cities in America. “A lot of the standards that our water agency adopted early on – our drought ordinance and conservation strategies – were adopted by the EPA in putting together national water conservation standards,” he said.

“We think we’ve got a lot more to do in conservation, but we also know we have a lot of rights to groundwater that we haven’t maximized,” he said.

Marco Velotta, a management analyst in the sustainability office, said the water issues facing Las Vegas are shared by cities throughout the arid West and beyond.

“The aquifers in the Great Plains and some of the reservoirs in the wetter parts of the country have experienced droughts just as the American West has experienced them,” Velotta said. “So, we face the same challenges as everybody else.”

One of those challenges, he said, is that Las Vegas gets most of its water from the same source being used by desert communities throughout the Southwest: the Colorado River.

The river, either directly or indirectly, supplies water to some 40 million people throughout the region, including those in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, according to the U.S. Department of Reclamation. In fact, Nevada, which is allocated a 1.8 percent share of the river’s water, ranks seventh on the list of states that draw from it. That list is topped by California, with a 26.7 percent allocation, and Colorado with a 23.5 percent share, according to the department.

Fed mostly by snow melt in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the river forms Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam, about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. At full capacity, the lake is the largest water reservoir in the world, but levels have dropped perilously in recent years.

Velotta said Las Vegas recycles 75 million gallons of water per day at its wastewater treatment plants, which is used for irrigation at city golf courses or returned to Lake Mead for “return-flow credits.”

The city plans to complete a water optimization study this year and reduce water consumption another three percent in the next few years, Velotta said.

At the same time, Perrigo said, the city is looking at ways it can use zoning, land use and building codes to provide incentives for people to think green.

“That’s a big part of where we’re headed in the next few years,” Perrigo said. “We’re working with our downtown resorts and businesses to promote energy conservation, and we’ve got some ideas about how we’re going to start there simply by reporting out energy and water use and working with some of these business organizations… on developing commercial standards and reporting mechanisms.”

The city’s effort to engage citizens includes the launching of two nonprofit groups. Green Chips holds an annual Convene for Green event to “engage, educate and empower the community with a sustainability roadmap for Southern Nevada;” and, the city has partnered with Caesars Entertainment to provide sustainability leadership training to engage staff and lead teams in the effort.

The city hosted 120 community engagement events over the past year, drawing 65,000 people, and is developing a sustainability communication plan that will be rolled out this spring.

As the iconic city faces an uncertain future, Perrigo encourages his colleagues to keep their eyes on the long view.

“If you go out on the northwest side of town, you can see the ruts of the wagon trail going from Las Vegas to Tonopah, from back when Las Vegas was barely even a town,” he said. “And right next to those ruts you can see the railroad bed from when they had a railroad between Las Vegas and Tonopah (1906-1919). And, right next to that is Highway 95. It’s all in the same little transportation corridor. The point is, when you put something in place, like infrastructure, it’s around for many, many, many years. So, we have to think about that in the long term. We can’t just build things for current needs, because they last for decades,” Perrigo said.

And, if he has his way, they’ll last for decades – or centuries – more.

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