Monday, June 18, 2012 | 2 a.m.
John Bettencourt smiled from under his wide-brimmed hat as the Southern Nevada sun blazed across the 25-acre solar array he has been installing in northeast Las Vegas.
“Solar technology is changing so fast. It's really pretty incredible,” said Bettencourt, manager of the photovoltaic project under construction next to the city of Las Vegas’ wastewater treatment plant near Vegas Valley Road and Nellis Boulevard.
The $19.7 million project, which is being funded by the city's Sanitary Sewer Enterprise Fund, is one of the largest of its kind for a municipal government.
“The initial panel installation has gone very quickly, and it should be online by the end of the year,” said David Mendenhall, the city’s environmental manager.
The solar project, expected to generate about 20 percent of the power needed at the adjacent Water Pollution Control Facility, is the latest of several projects local governments are working on to reduce energy costs.
Clark County, North Las Vegas, Henderson, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Nellis Air Force Base have also been plugging into projects that use solar technology.
But solar power is only part of the green recipe to save on energy costs.
They've also been using new lighting technology or conservation means to reduce the costs of operating street lights and traffic lights, buildings, ball parks and recreation centers.
Tom Perrigo, Las Vegas' director of administrative services and the city’s chief sustainability officer, said state and local governments are making a statement to the industry by building to LEED energy efficiency certification standards for all of their buildings.
“We’re developing expertise," Perrigo said. "We’re developing a framework where it really is attractive to people, to industries, to business owners who want to be the green tech industry. In the state of Nevada, we have more square feet of LEED-certified buildings per capita than anywhere in the country."
Perrigo said sustainability efforts adopted by governments and businesses are creating an energy-efficient climate in the state.
"Quite the contrary to the common perception that we’re very energy intensive and very wasteful, we produce more economic output per unit of energy input than just about anyone else in the country,” Perrigo said.
3 megawatts of power
Sitting inside a construction trailer at the new solar array project, Mendenhall looked at an architectural drawing on a table.
It showed the layout of the 15,000 solar voltaic panels, which are just to the northeast of the Las Vegas Valley Wash Trail as it crosses Vegas Valley Road.
The ground-mounted panels will rotate and follow the sun, making them more efficient than solar arrays that are stationary, Mendenhall said.
One of the advantages of the solar panels is that they will produce their most power at the time of the day when power is needed most and when electric power is the most costly, Mendenhall said.
The photovoltaic project will generate 3 megawatts of power at peak capacity — when the sun is out between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.— and is expected to produce about 6 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, he said.
That’s enough electricity to power 300 homes annually, he said.
Diana Paul, city public information officer, said there are some projects on the East Coast that are larger, but this is probably the largest project of its kind in the West and possibly the largest of its kind for a municipality.
Other sustainability efforts
Perrigo said Las Vegas' city government spends about $15 million a year on energy.
Of that, a third is used to treat wastewater, a third is for lighting streets, and a third is for buildings and facilities — such as recreation centers, parks, ball fields, fire stations and City Hall.
“If you can hit those, you’re making a big dent,” Mendenhall said.
Perrigo said the city adopted a sustainability strategy in 2008 that set targets for energy conservation and renewable energy.
When the solar array project at the wastewater treatment plant is finished, the city will be up to nearly 5 megawatts of total solar energy installed across 28 city facilities and will provide up to 20 percent of the city’s peak energy demand, Perrigo said.
“That will save the city anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million on its energy bill,” he said.
They have financed the photovoltaic projects through rebates, grants and low-interest loans.
“The portion that the city has invested will be paid back in 15 years,” he said.
To put that into perspective, the total amount of power generated by the solar projects would be enough to power about 600 homes, he said.
“We’re generating power for city facilities during peak demand (the middle of the day), offsetting our peak energy load,” he said. “What that means is between the hours of 1 and 7 (p.m.) in the summer months, the value of that energy is three times what it is the rest of the year. Everybody is demanding energy at that time, so the price goes up.”
Residential customers pay 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour, he said. The energy that the city’s solar projects are producing during peak times is worth 30 to 35 cents per kilowatt hour, he said.
“We’re helping to relieve the pressure, even if it’s just a small amount,” he said.
Triple bottom line
The city’s sustainability strategy is the idea of the “triple bottom line,” Perrigo said.
In making decisions, more goes into it than just the trade-off in the energy cost — the city also looks at how the project will affect the environment and what kind of an effect it will have on the community's economy, he said.
"If we can bring those three components into focus, then it starts to make sense on these projects," he said.
For example, the new, large solar array project wouldn't make sense financially because the payback would be extended beyond the life of the solar panels themselves, he said.
But it does make sense when considered along with the rebates and grants available, the benefits to the community to develop green energy and to create green energy jobs, plus the benefits to the environment, he said.
“Some people would say a 15-year payback is too long,” he said. “But if you’re generating power for 30 years and you’re an organization that’s going to be around for a lot longer, and you have all these other benefits in terms of creating jobs and improving the environment, then it all starts to make sense.”
Perrigo said the city's efforts to replace its street lights and traffic lights is the "sweet spot" of its energy savings effort — it translates into cutting about $2 million a year in energy costs.
Of the city's 52,000 street lights, about 42,000 will be replaced by the end of this year or early next year with LED lights, he said. So far, about 12,000 lights have been replaced.
The LED lights will use roughly half as much electricity as the existing lights, he said. The LED lights also have about a 15-year life, compared with the two-year life of the existing lights, he said.
Perrigo said moving city offices from the old City Hall at Fourth Street and Stewart Avenue to the new Las Vegas City Hall at 495 S. Main St. has reduced energy spending by about 30 percent.
The city has more than 140 buildings and is retrofitting those that use the most energy, he said.
For example, it just finished a retrofit of the Development Services Center at Rancho and U.S. 95 that will reduce energy costs by 30 to 40 percent, he said.
They have also replaced the air conditioning and lighting at the city’s Detention Center, which will save 30 to 40 percent in that building.
“The payback on those is usually five to seven years,” he said. But on some retrofits, the projects pay for themselves in three years or less, he said.
More solar projects
The city has also done 25 other solar projects, Perrigo said. Those have been at recreation centers, fire stations, parks and the city’s maintenance yards.
The city is also evaluating using solar thermal energy for heating some of its pools. He said they are trying to figure out where to locate the solar water heaters at those pool areas.
He said they’ve also evaluated using wind energy. But wind maps indicate the wind speeds wouldn’t sustain energy projects in the valley.
“If we could get up on the ridge line, it would work,” Perrigo said. “But we don’t want to put big wind towers out blocking the view of Red Rock. I don’t think anybody would appreciate that. So wind doesn’t seem to have that much of an application. ”
He said officials were looking at the waste stream right now to, for example, turn a lot of the landscape waste into pellets that could be used in pellet furnaces. He said it might even be a way to efficiently heat water in swimming pools.
“We’re continuing to explore other opportunities for renewable energy,” Perrigo said. “The future is wide open, for sure.”
'Net zero' difficult to achieve
In the future, the overall energy bill will continue to be reduced — just not completely. The city will always need to employ people who are constantly monitoring building performance and seeking out new technology to make energy use more efficient. And it will need to pay off loans to install energy-efficient equipment.
“Right now we’re looking at getting to some form of net zero, where we drive conservation as deep as we can and then make up the rest of our energy with renewable energy,” Perrigo said. “I think net zero is absolutely possible.”
He said in the past four years, the city has cut its energy demand by 20 percent, and up to 20 percent of its peak load is coming from renewable energy.
“In the next 10 years, it’s very possible for us to be at net zero,” he said, “especially when you see the price of solar is coming down.”
The city’s energy bill is expected to drop from about $15 million to about $13 million this year because of the various projects. Next year, it will probably be even lower, he said.
Kathleen Richards, a spokesperson for the city of Henderson, said that since 2008, the city has put a hold on all of its capital building projects.
However, any new project will be built to LEED certification standards, she said.
"When we do, we will include sustainable things, such as solar, geothermal and windmill power," Richards said.
She said since completing an energy performance contract last year on nearly all city buildings and streets, the city has saved about $2 million annually by:
• Reducing electric consumption by 20 percent, which includes a street lights project and retrofits at about 60 city-owned and city-operated facilities.
• Reducing natural gas consumption by 9 percent and water consumption by 8 percent.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60 million pounds, which is equivalent to removing 2,662 cars from the road.
One of the projects done in the past two years was to retrofit about 26,000 street light fixtures from high-pressure sodium to induction lighting, which lasts four times longer and will save up to $1 million in energy costs a year, she said.
She said the city has also received LEED Gold Certification for the Heritage Park Senior Facility and Aquatic Center and has installed a ground source geothermal heat pump system at Heritage Park.
They have also installed a ground source geothermal heat pump system at Heritage Park.
North Las Vegas projects
Tom Brady, engineering design manager for North Las Vegas, said the most noticeable new solar project for North Las Vegas is at the new City Hall building at 2250 Las Vegas Blvd. North, which was completed in November.
A 165-kilowatt solar array was installed at the site, which puts solar panels on the roof of the building and on covered parking stalls, Brady said.
He said the LEED Silver Certified building receives about 12 percent of its power through the solar array.
"With all of our buildings, we attempt to get them LEED certified," Brady said.
The city is finishing construction on its Craig Ranch Maintenance Facility at Craig Ranch Regional Park, which will also be LEED certified, he said.
North Las Vegas is also working with Las Vegas to replace street lights along Losee Road with LED lighting, he said.
Clark County projects
Dan Kulin, public information officer for Clark County, said from 2004 to 2011, the county has reduced its energy consumption per square foot by 27 percent, saving close to $17 million in energy projects.
Since 2004, the county has updated the traffic signals at 375 intersections from incandescent to LED lights, which has translated into a 90 percent savings.
Kulin said new LED lights have been installed at another 150 intersections in the county.
About 5,000 street lights were also replaced, and eventually all of the street lights will be replaced, which is about a 65 percent energy savings, Kulin said.
The county has also modernized its buildings with temperature and lighting controls to produce energy-efficient lighting, heating and air conditioning.
The county also operates three 30-kilowatt photovoltaic systems, he said. One is at the Spring Mountain Youth Camp, one at the county's Development Services Building and one at the Clark County Government Center.