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L.E.E.D.er of the Pack

With global warming on the forefront of the state of affairs in the world, it is no small wonder the study and practice of design has become more sustainability-oriented, especially in the architectural and industrial design industries.

The west coast has been the leader in the green design movement with architects focusing on designing buildings integrated with the environment. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings represent 38.9% of US primary energy use and 70% of the total electrical consumption and are one of the heaviest consumers of natural resources, accounting for a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions effecting climate change.

A green building uses less energy or generates its own, consumes less water or harvests it, uses more renewable and local resources to minimize transportation, and seeks to improve the external as well as internal environment. These factors serve to increase productivity and the overall well-being of the occupants.

Surprisingly, recent Bloomberg polls show more than 50% of the US population is still refusing to accept that our emissions are changing the climate and see it as a technical issue to be settled at some far off time in the future; certainly not within the current generations' lifetimes. Industry experts assert and predict otherwise.

Las Vegas in particular, being located in the hot and arid Mojave Desert, comes with specific environmental challenges, such as water and energy shortages, and has felt the changes in the climate more directly. Considered by some as one of the more unsustainable cities in the world, there has been a collective push in incorporating green design extensively to counter balance some of the serious obstacles facing this metropolitan area of more than 1.5 million residents.

On August 10, 2009, the second annual Clean Energy Summit was carried out in the Cox Pavilion at UNLV and included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Former Vice President Al Gore, and Secretary Steven Chu of the U.S. Department of Energy, among other notable figures. This day-long, solution-oriented conference focused on the discussion of a policy agenda which would create new jobs by stimulating the application of clean energy and energy-efficient technology, all while advancing U.S. energy independence. It was followed up with the two day Renewable Energy Symposium where more than 200 clean energy proponents came together to share ideas and create the future of the sustainable energy movement in Nevada. Alternate sources of power such as algae-based energy were among the primary topics of discussion and urgency was the most notable undercurrent of the speakers' messages, signaling that it is the time for immediate action.

Particular pressure was focused on the utility giant NV Energy, which supplies all of Nevada with electricity, as well as a significant portion of North-Eastern California. The state of Nevada has mandated the company meet certain clean energy improvements and standards. As of 2008, renewable power accounts for 9% of the total power supplied by NV Energy, and if the company is going to meet its 2012 requirement of having 15% of its energy come from renewable resources, much work is left to be done.

Since its inception in 1998, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, has developed the standard against which environmentally sustainable building construction and design can be measured consistently. Today there are over 14,000 LEED certified projects in over thirty countries including the United States.

The LEED rating system includes six major areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design process. With up to 106 points possible, buildings are scored in each aforementioned category according to the amount of sustainable innovation used in the project. The total of these points culminates in the certification of the building as LEED Certified, LEED Silver, LEED Gold, and LEED Platinum, with Platinum status being the highest rating available. The Vegas valley boasts its own LEED Certified mega projects, as well as commercial buildings and single family homes. These projects are paving the way to significantly reducing the negative environmental impact of buildings and construction in the Las Vegas valley.

Currently, the greatest push for renewable energy in Nevada and at NV Energy is the solar power installation program, which retrofits existing homes with Photo Voltaic panels. Although this is a reasonable start, the solar panels are still leaving the homes dependent on NV Energy at night and on cloudy days. The $45,000 price tag is cut in half via $13,500 in federal tax credit and a $9,500 rebate; however this still adds up to $22,000 in upfront costs for the potential home owner. The high cost is limiting the number of households able to shoulder such investments.

Environmental groups remain skeptical of what they consider half-hearted attempts by NV Energy to increase renewable energy supply. Currently there is no incentive for a household or business in Nevada to generate any more power than it can use on its own, since there is no option to sell the power back to NV Energy.

Fortunately, affordable and effective ways to reduce energy consumption do exist. NV Energy has a list of no-cost, low-cost, and reasonably priced suggestions, described in detail at www.nvenergy.com, and can reduce 10-25% on a monthly energy bill.

Outside of retrofitting an existing home to become more energy efficient, an increasing number of LEED Certified projects have begun incorporating the highest standards of residential green architecture and design. Villa Trieste is a single family community in Summerlin and offers an integrated roof solar power system and is the largest residential project in the US to be LEED Certified. These homes are energy and water efficient and include a centralized battery system that stores power for use during peak energy consumption hours. The goal is to reduce energy consumption by 65% compared to a conventional home.

Las Vegas is also home to The Palazzo, the largest building in the world to have achieved LEED Silver certification. The Palazzo comes equipped with a solar powered pool heating system which pours over excess hot water into the hotel's hot water system and saves enough power to light a 100 watt light bulb for 12,100 years. While the building's efficient water fixtures use 37% less water than standard buildings, the innovative irrigation design saves an additional 75%. In addition, 70% of the demolition materials from the Sands building complex were saved from going to the landfill and 95% of the structural steel used in constructing The Palazzo was recycled.

Naturally, the "best in Vegas" reputation that The Palazzo achieved with its green design won't hold for very long. Gaming giant MGM Mirage is less than 2 months away from opening its CityCenter property, a 16 million square foot urban complex located next to the world famous Bellagio. The immense CityCenter project is an $11 billion feat of green engineering. The commendable sustainable design efforts of this project alone will eliminate approximately 48,000 tons of green house gases from being released into the atmosphere annually. Additionally, more than 80% of the construction waste will be re-used and recycled over the lifetime of the construction. CityCenter has even gone to great lengths to increase the quality of the environment for its employees, providing a special air system to keep the smoke from gamblers' cigarettes from reaching the table game dealers. These unprecedented efforts are garnering recognition locally and worldwide.

Although some would have guessed that green design would have been left in the wake of the shaky world economy, President Obama's stimulus package has set aside $15 billion per year for the next ten years to invest in the creation of well paying "green" jobs. With such powerful backing it seems that no such fate shall befall this growing $10 billion industry. As construction companies, sub contractors and artisans become more educated in the process of eco-friendly design, LEED Certified building construction and design is nearing standard construction costs and beginning to yield greater future savings. This commitment to sustainable technology is not only going to impact the current economy, but also the economy of the future, reducing the nation's dependence on oil consumption and ultimately bringing more energy independence to the United States.