Vegas keeps lights burning as tab soars

Electric lights define Las Vegas, and even in a power crunch, Nevada isn't about to let it's showcase attraction go dark.

In energy-starved California these days, it's de rigueur to turn off the lights when they're not in use. And perish the thought of producing more illumination than really necessary: It's become a 40-watt culture.

But when Californians cross the Nevada border for Las Vegas, they see the power crunch in a different light.

Make that a lot of lights.

Miles outside the city, an orange glow can be seen in the sky. As visitors get closer, they come face to face with the almost kaleidoscopic shimmer of the Strip.

Downtown, Glitter Gulch is washed in perpetual daylight, thanks to millions of bulbs and miles of neon tubing. Monster casinos sport sequined facades and blinking marquees.

Some hotels here have made conservation moves, such as efficient bulbs. But dimmer switches aren't part of the plan.

This doesn't mean Nevada has no power concerns. The state, actually, just purchased additional power from Arizona, Colorado, and Utah to prevent rolling blackouts this summer.

But even as power prices here soar, the state is committed to bright lights. After all, that neon shimmer has everything to do with the image of Las Vegas - and with billions of dollars in tourism business that fuels this desert economy.

Of course, keeping the lights on during a region-wide power crunch doesn't come cheap. To cope, some megaresorts are adding a guest surcharge - and businesses and residents alike are being hit with higher energy bills.

Nevada is on the same power grid as California, "but we generate 50 percent of our own power.... The power we generate in southern Nevada is for use in southern Nevada," says Nevada Power spokeswoman Sonya Heading.

Still, casino owners were hit with a 27 percent rate increase earlier this year. Residential customers received a 17 percent increase. Those moves came atop earlier rate hikes.

The total electricity used to light all the downtown hotel-casino exteriors in one year, Ms. Heading says, would power 4,200 homes. Separately on the Strip, the electricity used for hotel-casino facades is enough to power 23,500 homes. That doesn't count slot machines and air conditioning.

At the Luxor hotel-casino alone, a 40-billion-candlepower searchlight is visible from outer space as it beams from atop the pyramid. The light uses enough electricity to power 70 homes, according to Nevada Power Co.

It's something of a culture shock to visitors from the Golden State - who are grateful just to be able to keep their microwaves on long enough to heat a frozen dinner.

But when they come to neon Never-Never Land, even visitors from the Bay Area take the fluorescence in stride.

"I haven't given the lights on the Strip a thought," says Jewell Corey of San Francisco. "I expected them to be on. Honestly, had they been off when we arrived, I would have been disappointed."

Still, Ms. Corey, who was staying with a friend at the Mirage hotel-casino, does her part to conserve. "While in the hotel room, I am very aware of keeping as many lights off as possible," she says.

Over at Harrah's, management has signed a seven-year deal to buy its energy elsewhere. And the casino was the first to add on an energy surcharge to room bills. (The Rio and MGM Mirage have followed suit.)

Once Harrah's recoups its energy costs, the $3 surcharge will be lifted, says Gary Thompson, director of corporate communications.

While Nevada is weathering the electricity storm, the power crunch has diminished the cash reserves of potential tourists.

Skyrocketing power costs contributed to a 4.4 percent decline in Californians going to Nevada in the first three months of this year, says Bear Stearns gambling analyst Jason Ader.

But Mr. Thompson doesn't think the soaring fuel prices are keeping all the Californians away.

"People may be paying $10 extra each way to drive their cars here," he says. "It's an annoyance to them, but they recognize that it's part of the world today."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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