Casinos are taking energy efficiency steps that are proving positive for both the bottom line and the environment

Beyond building a casino and its adjacent hotel or resort to be energy efficient from the start, existing buildings can be upgraded to include new technologies that green up the facilities while substantially trimming energy and other natural resource costs.

To determine what can be done, casinos can bring in a firm such as Lime Energy Co., a national provider of energy efficiency solutions based in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

“There are three areas where casinos can trim their operating costs while producing significant benefits for the environment: Lighting, the Mechanical System and Water,” said Dan Parke, president and chief operating officer of Lime Energy Co. “When contracted, Lime will conduct a premises-wide audit of these systems to determine where the energy leaks are and what can be done to eliminate them.”

Lime in October completed its biggest energy efficiency retrofit project to date at the Harrah’s Rincon Resort and Casino in Valley Center, Calif. Much of this project concentrated on lighting, which is the greatest consumer of energy in casinos, Parke said.

“What we did was to remove all of the incandescent and fluorescent lights out of elevators, recessed lighting in ceilings and outdoor signage, and replaced them with new light-emitting diode (LED) technology. LEDs use about one-seventh to one-tenth of the energy of standard lamps but last about 10 times longer, with no loss in brightness,” he noted.

“The longer duration of LEDs also trims labor needs in casinos. As incandescent bulbs in outdoor signage last only about 1,000 hours while LEDs can last up to three years, so you don’t have to send employees up ladders to replace bulbs as often,” Parke explained.

But Parke noted that one cannot just unscrew old technology bulbs and put LEDs in their place. The lighting systems have to be redesigned for the new technology to assure proper lighting coverage for the areas to be illuminated.

As a result of Lime’s work on the lighting systems, Harrah’s Rincon was able to permanently reduce its energy use by two million kilowatt hours per year. This, said Brenden O’Kane, property operations manager at Harrah’s Rincon, translates into an annual $200,000 savings in energy costs.

According to Parke, beyond the utility bill savings, the reduced energy use at Harrah’s Rincon also generates the following environmental benefits each year:
  • Avoids the emission of 1.8 million pounds of   carbon dioxide, a leading cause of global warming;
  • Avoids emission of 1,200 pounds of sulfur dioxide,   a leading cause of acid rain;
  • Avoids emission of 1,600 pounds of nitrogen   dioxide, a leading cause of smog and acid precipitation;
  • Produces an ecological benefit equal to removing   150 passenger cars from the road.
“And going to LEDs also produced savings in the casino’s annual maintenance budget without diminishing the guest experience,” O’Kane added.

While upgrading lighting technology provides the quickest payback, casinos can trim energy use in other areas, Parke said.

Installing sensors in hotel rooms can automatically shut off the lights and either reduces or turn off air conditioning systems can produce additional energy savings, he noted. Water use (and related bills) also can be diminished by installing low-flow toilets in rooms.

Retrofitting the latest energy-efficiency technologies into existing casinos and other structures can be costly. But because electric utilities in some markets want to help big energy consumers use less (and thus save themselves the cost of increasing generating capacity), they can provide incentives that reduce the cost of upgrading and shorten the payback period.

“It’s a matter of doing what is right,” Parke said. “If all buildings in the U.S. upgraded to LED lighting, we’d have no energy crisis.”

Other casinos have taken steps toward improving their environmental performance.

The Harrah’s Entertainment-owned Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and the Seneca Niagara Falls Casino in New York have installed CHP (Cogeneration) systems that produce both power and heat from the same fuel source.

With cogeneration equipment, the casinos produce their own electricity on premises, then use the waste heat from this process to condition the air, producing heating the winter months and cooling during summer months. The waste heat also is used to produce some of the casino’s hot water in guest rooms and restaurant kitchens.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the advantages of cogeneration include higher-quality power with stabilized voltage and current, freedom from power outages at the local utility, and reduced heating/cooling costs.

Harrah’s Laughlin Casino & Hotel in Laughlin, Nev., also has implemented “green” programs that include conserving water by putting aerators on all faucets to reduce flow, installing low-flow toilets, and eliminating on-grounds foliage that has high water needs. The casino also has a recycling program in which paper, cardboard, plastic and metal scrap is separated from the regular waste into separate dumpsters and sold to a recycling firm. The program has generated good public relations and trimmed waste disposal costs.

Harrah’s Laughlin also is converting its lighting systems, banishing energy-gluttonous incandescent bulbs in favor of LED lamps on signs and on the gaming floor.

Lime Energy stresses that the technologies it offers for retrofitting are effective at low cost.

“Solar and wind power systems may be sexy, but they’re not currently cost effective,” Parke said.

But that hasn’t stopped others from looking into these future technologies.

With the help of a federal grant, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Reservation in south-central South Dakota erected in 2003 a commercial-utility-scale 750-kilowatt wind turbine. That system now produces 2.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, fulfilling much of the power needs of reservation residents and the tribe’s Rosebud Casino.

Harnessing the wind to produce electricity has many advantages, said Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), which oversees such systems for Native American tribes. Wind is a renewable resource that produces clean energy without the pollution of coal-fired generators or the disposal problems of nuclear power systems. While some find the 25-story turbines unsightly (they can be seen up to 20 miles away on the flat prairie), they also provide the tribe with an extra source of income when the turbine produces more electricity than the tribe and its casino can use and the excess power goes into the area electric grid and is purchased by businesses seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.

In August, the Rosebud Sioux announced plans to add another 30-megawatt wind plant to the reservation next year.

Solar and wind energy systems also are being considered to switch the Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel to renewable energy – perhaps during the operation’s next upgrade.

The Turtle Creek property near Traverse City, Mich., has committed substantial resources to green practices.

Operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa of Chippewa Indians, Turtle Creek was redeveloped over the past few years into a much larger casino resort. And in planning the larger structure housing the operation, the tribe opted to express their reverence for the land and the ecology by incorporating into the design many organic and eco-friendly elements.

The resulting 360,000-square-foot structure designed by the Minneapolis-based firm of Stephen Knowles incorporates these elements into a strikingly modern design that has been praised in the media worldwide since it opened last summer.

The building appears to rise from the earth, with exterior metal panels painted “Turtle Creek brown” set apart by brushed and polished stainless steel panels that reflect the sky and surrounding landscape. The building is surrounded by prairie grass and species of trees native to the area, some of which are being reintroduced to this section of Michigan after being logged into oblivion by lumber interests in the late 19th Century, explained Shawn Carlson, marketing director of operating firm of Grand Traverse Resort & Casinos. These trees include about 100 giant black willows that absorb toxins from runoff before it reaches the groundwater, he said.

Over one section of the building is a 2,400-square-foot “green roof” covered with plants (day lilies, ferns and leafy hostas) that not only provide insulation but also filter storm water of contaminants.

Other energy-saving and ecological features abound.

“Most people have never seen a casino with windows, but in the Turtle Creek our daytime lighting comes from skylights the run the length of the building,” Carlson said. “By taking advantage of natural lighting, we use much less electricity. And at night, we use LED lights that provide the same brightness on less electricity.”

Another environmentally friendly feature of Turtle Creek is that all drinks are served in glasses, thus eliminating the waste of plastic bottles and metal cans that could spend eternity in a landfill.

Because Turtle Creek allows guests to smoke in the casino, it has so far been unable to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

But it also deals with the smoking issue with a state-of-the-art air handling system that brings fresh air into the complex through vents in the floor and sends stale air out through the ceiling. This pushes any lingering cigarette or cigar smoke upwards and away from guests on the gaming floor, greatly reducing contact with second-hand smoke by nonsmokers, Carlson said. This thorough changing of air in the complex keeps the atmosphere fresh, he added.

Turtle Creek also installed low-energy slot machines on its floor, all of which is of the TITO (Ticket-In/Ticket-Out) variety. Those machines use only half the electricity of conventional slots, Carlson said.

When tearing down the old facility, Turtle Creek recycled the materials (by crushing and pulverizing them) to make new paving materials for roads leading to the property and its parking lots. The resort also has a high-efficiency sewage treatment system that can purify 90,000 gallons daily so it returns to the environment almost as clean as when it was water pumped from wells under the resort’s grounds. Grease is filtered from effluvium and is trucked away rather than be disposed through drains or chimneys.

Although building “green” increased construction costs by 10 percent ($116 million total), Carlson said it was worth it, as the energy savings will cover the difference in just a few years.