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The city of blinding lights is starting to see 'green'

The first thermal plant in 16 years opened this summer in southern Nevada. And America's most expensive private development – a new hotel and casino complex on the Strip – is getting LEED certified.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 2007



Las Vegas

It draws busloads of Sin City tourists, it's got more mirrors than the Trump Towers, and sometimes the lights are practically blinding.

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But this latest marvel in the Nevada desert isn't a hotel casino. It's a solar thermal plant that provides peak power to nearby Las Vegas, one of the most unlikely places on the planet to be showing signs of environmental fervor.

On the Strip itself, not far from the canals at the Venetian and the fake volcano, thousands of hard hats are following ecofriendly building standards at the most expensive privately funded project in US history. The CityCenter condo complex has spawned "green" subcontractors and stocked the local lumberyards with sustainable timber.

The greening of Las Vegas follows a trend seen across the country. But given Vegas's reputation as a place that likes the odds stacked in its favor, it's notable that clean energy and sustainable development no longer look like risky bets.

"In general, the paradigm in Vegas has been pretty wasteful. But it's also very expensive to keep operating that way. So I'm not that surprised," says Ron Pernick, coauthor of "The Clean Tech Revolution."

State lawmakers have seeded some of the changes. Nevada is one of two dozen states requiring that a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable energy. Nevada went further: 5 percent must be solar.

That nudge, along with the sun and open space, attracted the renewable energy firm Acciona to build in Nevada. When its 64-megawatt solar thermal plant went online this summer, it became the first new one in the US since 1991.

"I would not say that Nevada is different from other states [going green], but what they understand is that they have the potential here for development in the state – they have the resources and the needs," says Gilbert Cohen, a senior vice president with Acciona.

In other words, Nevada's leaders are realizing that the state is rich not only in gold and gypsum, but in sun and steam. In the next few years, the state is projected to quadruple its geothermal power production. And solar got another boost: Ausra, a California maker of solar-thermal parts, recently announced it would locate its North American plant in Las Vegas.

But the state is also considering proposals for new coal-fired plants, says Launce Rake with the Progressive Leadership Alliance in Nevada.

"It's not like the first thing people talk about is, 'boy, we have to be environmentally sensitive,'" says Mr. Rake. "But it does indicate that when you change the law to give incentives to engage in particular behaviors, the market will respond."

Another incentive: a rebate on state sales and property taxes for construction that meets Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) standards. MGM Mirage jumped on it, announcing it would aim for LEED certification with the 68-acre, $7.5 billion CityCenter site – which involved more square footage than all LEED-certified buildings combined in the US at that time.

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