How Las Vegas Has Become a Leading City in Sustainable Hotels

Courtesy Wynn Las Vegas

America’s decadent desert getaway has become a global leader in sustainable hotels. Can its lessons translate to cities around the world?

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Las Vegas has built its reputation on gleeful self-indulgence since the days of Elvis and Viva Las Vegas. But in recent years, Sin City has proven to be more conscientious than we thought—at least when it comes to the environment. Powering all those bright lights and 24/7 casinos is one of the most efficient networks of renewable energy in the world.

The first big shift from neon to green came back in 2001, when Nevada gave the Strip’s energy-guzzling casino resorts the go-ahead to circumvent local utilities suppliers and become more self sufficient. Wynn Resorts was among the first to take advantage, building a solar farm on 160 acres in the desert some 386 miles outside town. By 2018, the gleaming panels were capable of generating 45,000 megawatt-hours of energy every year, fulfilling 75 percent of the resort’s peak needs—including blasting AC at the height of blistering Nevada summers—and significantly lowering operational costs. In 2016, MGM Resorts International, which operates such iconic tourist palaces as the Bellagio—an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property—and Excalibur, constructed its own 28-acre solar field on the rooftop of Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. The 26,000 interlocking panels form one of the largest urban solar arrays in the U.S. and create enough electricity to power a quarter of the needs of Mandalay Bay’s convention center, or more than 1,300 individual homes. The company has also broken ground on a 640-acre solar farm on public land 25 miles from the city; in the near future, the field will power 30 percent of the energy needed to run MGM’s 12 resorts—an amount it plans to increase to 50 percent over time.

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Las Vegas leading the world’s shift to solar power? It actually makes sense, says Olivia Ruggles-Brise, the London-based director at Greenview, an international consulting agency that helps hotels curb emissions. “Our vision of Las Vegas is completely the opposite of a sustainable destination, but because the city is young, developing, and self-contained, it has the chance to experiment.”

Courtesy MGM Resorts

Solar panels were just the start. Vegas’s famous water features have become part of a widespread conservation program, with the indoor fountains at the Venetian and the cascades at Caesars Palace repurposing millions of gallons every year. The all-you-can eat buffet has cut down on waste too. For more than a decade, resorts have shipped food scraps to livestock farms, where pigs chow down on lobster tails, shrimp, and fettuccine Alfredo. Fully prepared but untouched meals from conventions are given to food banks as part of a program that has earned applause from the Environmental Protection Agency. Resorts have also started drying out millions of emptied oyster shells in the desert, then shipping them back East for recycling. (After being seeded with ten baby oyster eggs each, the shells are immersed in Chesapeake Bay sanctuaries, where they go on to fulfill their natural role of filtering the water in the vast aquatic ecosystem.)

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Vegas’s newfound sense of responsibility comes none too soon. According to a 2018 study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, tourism accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gases. While a significant portion of that is due to transportation, the hotel industry creates a full 1 percent of the world’s emissions. That’s a mindboggling 4.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.

For most urban hotels, trying to reduce their footprint has often seemed too difficult. It’s one thing for a small resort in Bali to check off the green boxes: the fresh-caught fish, the on-site farm, the solar panels, the recycled rainwater. It’s another to scale it up to hundreds, even thousands of hotels in the heart of major cities. But some hotel mega-brands are starting to take the issue seriously. In part, it’s a result of a shift in the Zeitgeist, says Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, which has for the past two decades been one of the industry’s most vocal leaders in green innovation. “The train has left the station,” he says. “Corporations are talking about sustainability in a way they weren’t a decade ago.” Boards are accepting that their companies are part of a global ecosystem and should think beyond immediate profits for shareholders.

This bracing selflessness is nudged along, of course, by self-interest: Hotel chains have discovered that certain green measures make economic sense. According to Erik Hansen, the chief sustainability officer at Wynn Resorts, the very challenges of Vegas’s harsh environment have prompted creative financial thinking since the days of Bugsy Siegel. Nevada’s 300 days of annual sunshine make solar panels unusually cost-efficient. So do the economies of scale in Las Vegas. “We have such a high concentration of top-tier, high-energy-consuming hotels,” Hansen says. “Each one is a mini-city.”

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Naturally, this model is difficult to translate to cities in cooler, darker climes, but innovations can travel with creative twists. The Wynn’s Encore Boston Harbor, for example, has a micro-grid that includes a rooftop solar array and four-megawatt Dynapower batteries. It helps reduce demand at critical times, such as summer heat waves, giving the hotel a degree of independence and stability. At the brand’s Macau resort, an artificial intelligence camera system provides a monthly summary of which specific dishes, whether it’s the sushi or the meatballs, end up in the garbage most often. With that data, they can reduce overproduction in the kitchen. “We can attack food waste up front,” Hansen says, rather than the more traditional recycling after. There are other bright spots in city hotels around the world too, from the rooftop wind turbines that generate energy for the Hilton Fort Lauderdale to the towering oxygen-producing green walls resembling the Hanging Gardens of Babylon at the Parkroyal Collection Pickering, Singapore.

Other achievements are less flashy but just as enduring. Accor’s Fairmont Royal York, for example, has won the World Travel Awards’ Leading Green Hotel category in North America for three years running, even though it is in the high-rise heart of downtown Toronto. A paragon of Canadian practicality, the 1,343-room property, located within a restored 1929 structure, doesn’t have a solar array or towering tiers of green walls, but its combination of modest advancements—an apiary that produces hundreds of pounds of organic honey annually, a rooftop herb garden, and a network of nearby farm suppliers among them—proves that many small steps can add up to a significant impact.

Six Senses has traditionally operated resorts in remote and pristine idylls like Bali and Bhutan, where it’s easier to enact self-sustaining models than it is in Singapore and Istanbul, the locations of the brand’s first urban hotels. But cities can provide their own unique set of solutions too. “There is nothing more sustainable than historical restoration,” Jacobs says. “You’re recycling extraordinary buildings, not increasing the footprint.” While updating existing structures and reusing materials is far better for the planet than even the most LEED-friendly new build, opportunities to restore and renovate remain relatively scarce when it comes to meeting the needs of modern travelers, as Jacobs realized when searching for the location of Six Senses’ flagship in Manhattan, set to open next year. A test of how far the brand’s ethos can stretch in modern construction, Six Senses New York will be part of the new XI, a pair of twisting skyscrapers designed by Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels that will meet the requirements of a LEED Silver rating, integrating a state-of-the-art ventilation system and a rooftop vegetable garden.

Sebastien Nagy

Jacobs has already had an impact beyond his own brand too. When Six Senses was acquired by InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) in 2019, press reports suggested that the parent company would enact many of his efforts across its portfolio of 5,895 hotels. As it happens, many innovations were already in motion, and IHG independently announced it would phase out travel-size plastic toiletry bottles company-wide by the end of 2021.

Such measures are widely commended, but experts warn that what looks like progress up close often amounts to mere drops in the bucket. “Removing straws and other single-use plastics—these are good steps, no question,” says Gregory Miller, executive director at the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit research center based at Stanford University and in Washington, D.C. “But they are so below what is the minimum needed. We need genuine leadership, and that means making hard choices. It requires shared sacrifice.” Without greater government policy, Miller adds, green hotel innovations are strictly voluntary—and while the payoff of investments such as the solar arrays in Las Vegas can be big, the up-front cost is often prohibitive.

Ruggles-Brise emphasizes the need for more widespread regulation too, arguing there’s a ceiling to the amount of good a single structure can do. “One hotel in the middle of London is not going to make a lot of a difference,” she admits. “A whole city should be on renewable energy, or a block of offices— not just one hotel in the middle of it.”

Still, at some point, enough drops in a bucket can create a small wave. A study by the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research found that China is opening the equivalent of three 150-plus-room hotels every day, which will bring its projected number of rooms to more than 9 million by 2039. So far, the country has lagged behind in sustainability, but even basic changes in energy efficiency at these new hotels could reduce total carbon emissions by 84 million tons of CO2 by 2025, an amount that’s greater than the annual carbon footprint of all of South Korea or the Philippines. And anywhere in the world, swapping plastic straws for biodegradable ones costs nearly nothing, Jacobs points out. Other small innovations require little more than the stroke of an executive’s pen.

Change also begets more change, Hansen argues, noting the rise of green entrepreneurs that has resulted from Wynn’s demand for corn-based biodegradable straws and aluminum water bottles. “What in the past might have been a niche product is becoming standard very quickly,” he says. “New products have emerged to meet our needs.” What happens in Vegas, it seems, need not stay in Vegas anymore.