Aug. 29, 2022
This story is an excerpt from an APA PAS Report. Read Planning for Climate Mitigation and Adaptation for the latest on climate science and strategies.
Las Vegas has championed sustainability since 2005, when Mayor Oscar Goodman signed on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.
After a series of resolutions, the city — one of the fastest growing in the American West — made a concerted effort to integrate renewable energy production, energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling, green building, and alternative transportation into its plans, codes, and capital projects to mitigate GHG emissions and reduce overall community costs. This was done to address climate opportunities and challenges facing the 2.2 million residents and 45 million annual visitors to the southern Nevada region.
These proactive efforts were also important because of the critical drought that has impacted the Colorado River basin for the past two decades. Given that the Colorado River serves millions of users and irrigates millions of acres — and that Nevada receives only two percent of the flows of the river — climate mitigation and adaption efforts have been a top priority for the city's longevity. The city's Sustainable Energy Strategy set goals and targets to meet a variety of climate change, renewable energy, and energy efficiency targets, as well as establish a plan and framework for achieving those goals and target over time.
Funding an energy transition
With an infusion in federal funds through the Recovery Act, the city was able to leverage other city, state, and utility funding to install more than six megawatts of solar, construct eight Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified green buildings, and replace more than 45,000 streetlights with LED lighting.
The city also made energy efficiency improvements to its largest facilities, installed more than 40 acres of turf with water-conserving landscaping, and added more than 500 miles of bike lanes and other bike infrastructure. Renewable energy ordinances were adopted, and a new form-based zoning code was established for the downtown. Recycling was also a focus: The city deployed single-stream recycling at all public facilities, in rights-of-way, and for all residential customers.
In conjunction with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the city also adopted a drought ordinance that increased limitations on outdoor irrigation, incentivized the removal of turf, and increased water rates on a tiered pricing system in an effort to conserve water. Due to aggressive state policy, coal-fired power generation was set on track for removal (and successfully phased out) for the state's resource portfolio; Nevada's renewable portfolio standard is now set in the Nevada Constitution at 50 percent renewable by 2030.
These efforts were deployed beginning in 2009 and reduced the city's total energy costs from a peak of $15 million in 2008 to $9.5 million in 2020, reduced annual water consumption by 240 million gallons from 2008 levels, decreased emissions to mid-1950s levels, and increased the recycling rate at city facilities to 50 percent. Savings from the initial investment were used to reinvest in additional projects after repaying debt service on some projects.
After success, Vegas raises the bar
With these accomplishments, many of the targets from the Sustainable Energy Strategy were met; however, the city set its sights even higher. In 2017, the city council adopted a strategy for net-zero energy, sustainability, and community resilience. This set in motion a goal to meet 100 percent of the city's municipal retail load with renewable energy, as well as make an assessment of other community sustainability metrics in preparation for the development and adoption of a new comprehensive citywide master plan that had last been adopted in 2000.
The net-zero effort kicked off immediately. The city received an allocation of hydropower from Hoover Dam and partnered with the state's investor-owned electric utility, NV Energy, to execute a renewable energy agreement, fulfilling the goal to receive 100 percent of its electric retail load requirements from renewable sources.
Despite setbacks and major economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, new municipal buildings have continued to be built to LEED standards, including a new municipal courthouse and a replacement fire station. And in late 2020, the city completed its assessment of the natural environment, land use and transportation, energy and climate, water, waste, and quality of life issues and was rated as a LEED Gold-certified city by the U.S. Green Building Council. Key takeaways from LEED for Cities were incorporated throughout its 2050 Master Plan, the comprehensive 30-year guide to future growth and development that was adopted in May 2021.
A traditional approach that is future focused
The plan and corresponding zoning framework emphasize infill and transit-oriented development to create walkable communities, diversify housing stock, reduce vehicle miles traveled, drive even greater water conservation, double down on climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, and address environmental justice concerns. Future outcomes and conditions were intentionally aligned with the assessment to implement the plan and track progress over time.
Overall, this approach is rooted in the traditional planning process — a strong emphasis on goal setting, implementation, and evaluation. Cities large or small can make use of these components when looking for ways to address climate change. Ultimately, leveraging as many tools as possible will be necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change.