Cleantech
MGM Resorts' New Solar Array Pushing Las Vegas in a More Sustainable Direction

With its ongoing water struggles, the vast amounts of energy and resources going toward recreating cities such as Paris and Venice, and its bawdy reputation as a party town, sustainability is the last topic that comes to mind when thinking about Las Vegas. But Sin City is drenched in sun, and the ample roof space throughout the city offers the local hospitality sector opportunities to reduce costs via solar power and demonstrate it can be a more responsible industry. To that end, MGM Resorts International announced last week it has completed the installation of what it’s calling the world’s largest rooftop solar array on a convention center.

Covering 20 acres on the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino’s 1.7 million square feet of convention space, over 21,000 solar panels will provide 6.4 megawatts of clean energy to the complex. MGM says the energy generated from the rooftop array is enough to power 1,000 American homes while displacing about 6,300 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The array will also help lower demand on southern Nevada’s electricity grid during the hot summer days.

The project was a partnership between MGM and New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which financed, built and now owns and operates the array. Through a power purchase agreement (PPA), Mandalay Bay will buy the energy generated by the solar array. For MGM, the business and environmental benefits are substantial because the project will provide approximately 20 percent of Mandalay Bay’s electricity needs. To learn more about MGM’s decision to investing in solar and how it ties into the company’s growing focus on sustainability, I spoke with Chris Brophy, MGM Resorts’ VP of environmental compliance.

“We’ve been trying to incorporate solar and other renewables into our portfolio since 2005,” Brophy said, when asked what motivated MGM to make a large commitment to solar energy. MGM’s massive City Center was one of the company’s first projects boasting more sustainable technologies, with a natural gas cogeneration plant that provides hot water using waste heat and in turn generates 10 percent of the complex’s power. City Center also incorporated water- and energy-efficiency projects within its construction, leading it to score several LEED gold certifications upon opening in 2009. Meanwhile MGM’s executives kept their eyes on Mandalay Bay’s convention center roof, and began to conceptualize plans for an array on top of it back in 2007.

After multiple plans, designs and iterations, construction began last year. Brophy explained that the total time needed to complete the project, once the final plans were approved, took about 18 months. Part of the puzzle for MGM was deciding how to finance the array — should they invest in the project with company funds, or look to an outside company to construct and operate it? MGM settled on having a company with expertise in large-scale renewable energy projects to take on the risk, and hence developed the PPA with NRG Renew, the clean energy division of NRG Energy. As Brophy explained, NRG could take the lead on the regulatory environment and benefit from the available federal energy tax breaks and incentives, while MGM could purchase the electricity immediately at a reduced rate.

So how is MGM explaining its growing commitment to sustainability to its customers, if at all? After all, the hospitality industry regularly confronts an enormous challenge: human nature. Most travelers, whether they are on the road for leisure or business, behave much differently than they do at home. The daily routines of making sure lights are turned off and trash sorted for recycling is not on most people’s lists when they are away on holiday or at a conference.

“What we try to do is provide guests with opportunities to reduce their environmental impact during their stay here while making it as easy as possible,” Brophy said.

Going beyond suggesting guests reuse their towels, much of the company’s sustainability is now built within each MGM property — through systems that are more water-efficient, use less energy and generate less waste, and comingled waste bins that allow recycling without confusing the guest. When asked if guests at the Mandalay Bay would be educated about the solar array and why it was done, Brophy replied, “It’s going to be hard to miss that solar array, and really, it is just a small part of what we are doing.”

The real opportunities to make sustainability visible within the hospitality industry, insisted Brophy, were with convention planners and attendees, not guests staying within hotel rooms. Brophy noted that more and more event planners have directives from their companies to make their meetings and exhibitions more environmentally responsible. MGM educates event planners about its Green Advantage environmental program, and its convention center staff also educates customers on options to make that event more sustainable.

“We think just by choosing our facility, event planners are already making a huge step in making their meetings more sustainable and responsible,” Brophy said.

Scheduled to start operation in mid-November, Mandalay Bay’s solar array still has room for growth. MGM Resorts and NRG have already announced plans to expand the array with an additional two megawatts of capacity, on which construction will launch before the end of the year.

With tourism and convention business on the upswing in Vegas, the MGM Resorts project is just a small start in electrifying Las Vegas with cleaner forms of energy. The success of Mandalay Bay’s investment in solar could very well motivate other properties in southern Nevada to consider similar projects — especially as the cost of solar continues its plunge. In a sun-drenched city with plenty of rooftops, harnessing that free energy can help wean it away from increasingly costly, and carbon-intensive, fossil fuels.

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