The greening of Las Vegas

It's not just the color of money. When you live in a water-starved desert, getting "green" can mean ripping up your lawn. Photos: Solar power pushes Vegas water

LAS VEGAS--There's one sure way to make money in Vegas: rip out your lawn.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District pays residents $2 for every square foot of grass they remove and then replace with desert landscaping.

"We've removed millions of square feet," said Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the agency. "If you put it all together, an 18-inch piece of turf would stretch from Las Vegas to Sydney and beyond."

In addition, a huge portion of the water from the sewage system in this city of nearly 2 million is treated and reused. Some goes to golf courses, while the stuff that goes through most gets returned for human consumption. The city gets 300,000 acre feet a year from Lake Mead, and it reclaims more than 200,000 acre feet.

Vegas doesn't seem like a green city at first glance. The zillions of lights of the Strip blaze 24 hours a day, and there's a large Hummer dealership in town. Plus, the city's marquee economic activity is one of conspicuous consumption--a blow-the-life-savings-on-a-roll-of-the-dice ethos, not frugality of any sort.

But city officials, as well as the Nevada legislature, have begun to implement environmental programs that will, ideally, ease a bit of the burden of trying to keep a growing metropolis humming--one that just happens to be located in one of the more inhospitable deserts in North America.

For instance, Mack said, there are two government-owned hydrogen filling stations. Different city agencies are experimenting with hydrogen-powered utility vehicles and pickup trucks, which generally only drive in a circumscribed area--that is, never too far from a fill-up. Other municipalities are experimenting with hydrogen cars as well.

Energy and water are hot topics for residents. One person I met went into a lengthy discussion about the decline in water levels in Lake Mead and other nearby lakes. A cab driver told me how police threatened to throw him in jail for inciting a riot after complaining about his high power bill at the local utility's open house. After he complained, he said, several people joined in and started shouting at the utility officials.

The electrical bill in his two-bedroom condo, the driver said, comes to about $150 a month.

Because of Las Vegas' desert location, a major emphasis is on solar energy. Under one state law, utilities are required to get 15 percent of their power from renewable resources and 5 percent from solar by 2015.

This explains the solar panels on the roof of the underground pumping stations sending water to the city. The panels provide electricity to run the pumps, which lift water 200 feet into the air so that the water can cascade down to holding tanks and homes.

The water agency has already put solar panels on four of its pumping stations and will have a fifth completed soon. In all, the agency will put solar-power systems on six stations for a total of $22.6 million dollars. The tracking systems for the solar panels come from a company called PowerLight, which also provides maintenance, while Sharp made the solar panels.

The water system and the pumping system right now aren't completely synchronized. The pumps mostly run at night and the solar panels, for obvious reasons, generate electricity in the day. As a result, most of the electricity generated by the panels goes into the grid.

By shifting pumping activities to the daytime, a long-term change that's now under way, the agency will consume more of its own power and qualify for incentives and rebates from the state.

Solar will likely never fill all of the needs of the pumping stations. In January, the solar system at the Grand Canyon pumping station generated 38,000 kilowatt-hours of energy. Overall, said Mack, the plant consumed 114,000kWh.

Meanwhile, Acciona Solar next month plans to begin pumping power out of Nevada Solar One, a 64-megawatt facility 40 miles outside of town. That's enough power for 15,000 homes or 22,000 hotel rooms, said Gilbert Cohen, senior vice president of Acciona.

Potentially, the site, which is now 300 acres, could be built up to provide 2,000 megawatts of power.

(Editors' note: Check back Monday for a full story about the Nevada Solar One power plant.)

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