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Jennifer Robison

Strip to go dark in global event

29 January 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Planned marquee outages on the Strip come along about as often as Megabucks jackpots.

And like many of those slot-machine fortunes, lights-out events on Las Vegas Boulevard typically don't last long.

But on March 28, signs and message boards along the Strip -- the brightest spot on Earth when viewed from space, the lore goes -- will power down for 60 minutes as part of a global event intended to raise awareness of climate change.

Las Vegas is a flagship city for Earth Hour 2009, a World Wildlife Fund movement encouraging individuals, governments and businesses to dim or turn out lights. Casino executives and several local officials, including Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, gathered Wednesday at a news conference on the south Strip to talk about Southern Nevada's role in Earth Hour.

Getting the Strip in on Earth Hour is a significant move, said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"When it means something, turning down lights on the Strip is a very touching tribute, and it can be very effective," Schwartz said. "For the Strip to stop anything is a really big deal. The Strip doesn't like to do that."

It will be one of the few times Strip lights have been darkened for specific occasions, such as the deaths of presidents and entertainers.

This time, the lights will fade to honor Mother Earth. And it's not just resort owners on the Strip who'll participate: Nearly two dozen properties off the boulevard are scheduled to take part, including the Palms and properties belonging to Station Casinos and Boyd Gaming Corp.

Local municipalities have promised to turn down lights inside public buildings. Even the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign anchoring the Strip's southern end will go dark. The World Wildlife Fund also wants residents to join in by lowering or turning off lights inside their homes.

All 10 of MGM Mirage's Strip resorts will be in on Earth Hour, said company spokesman Gordon Absher. Exterior lights will dim to varying degrees. Inside, the company has no plans to turn down lights, though individual restaurants and other establishments might opt for Earth Hour-related promotions such as candlelight dinners.

"It's an opportunity for us to encourage other companies and individuals to do as our company has, and focus on sustainability and conservation," Absher said. "Having the skyline of one of the world's most recognizable cities go dark is one of the most dramatic statements the World Wildlife Fund could make."

Officials at power company NV Energy said they can't determine how much energy Earth Hour will save resorts, because electric bills aren't tabulated separately based on indoor and outdoor use. Executives at Young Electric Sign Co., which installed and services many of the Strip's best-known signs, said pegging energy savings would require analyzing each sign's power consumption, so they couldn't offer conservation figures Wednesday.

Regardless of the savings, some locals aren't so sure putting the Strip on Earth Hour time is wise -- or necessary.

John Williams, general manager of Young Electric, said Earth Hour flies in the face of the Strip's essence.

"If you take away the lights, you take away the glitz and the appeal of Las Vegas," said Williams, whose company's marquees and message boards are visible at the Stratosphere, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, Caesars Palace, Harrah's, New York-New York and other sites.

What's more, Earth Hour ignores the "tremendous" strides in energy efficiency sign manufacturers have made in the past decade, he said. For example, today's message boards use clusters of light-emitting diodes with vastly brighter and clearer output than the light bulbs of yesteryear offered.

The new technology means that modern signs use one-twelfth to one-fifteenth the energy consumption of their ancestors. Plus, better optical controls allow sign makers to put light where it's needed, rather than simply throw it into the atmosphere.

Schwartz, of UNLV, said he has a problem with the "commercialization" of climate change.

"It's kind of sanctimonious, and it insults the intelligence of people," he said. "When you've got a city built on defying the odds and defying the climate, and that city wants to somehow freeze the climate, it doesn't really seem to go together.

"There's definitely an argument to be made for being more conservationist and not wastefully expending resources, but I don't know if we want Las Vegas as a poster child for that. Las Vegas can be wasteful, and that's OK."

Some observers see futility in fussing over climate change. Schwartz noted that Mars, where polar ice caps are changing, claims no human activity.

And Geoffrey Lawrence, fiscal-policy analyst at free-market think tank Nevada Policy Research Institute, pointed to theories from atmospheric physicist Fred Singer, as well as Duke University researchers, that assert that higher levels of greenhouse gases follow global warming rather than cause it, and that solar cycles drive global warming more than earthbound carbon-dioxide levels do.

Still, all parties agree there's nothing wrong with conservation. It's a concept sweeping the Strip, independent of awareness-building exercises. At MGM Mirage, for example, lights in garages have been changed to energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. Opt-out policies allow guests to use their sheets two nights in a row to spare energy spent on laundry. Those and other changes have enabled MGM Mirage to save the equivalent of taking 2,800 homes off the power grid, Absher said.

"We had our eyes opened when we committed to build CityCenter to (the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards," he said. "It opened our eyes to how important sustainability is. In today's world, sustainability makes business sense."