I spent two days last week overlapping the two of the least sustainable parts of the American experience – Las Vegas and NASCAR. Now I like a good Vegas juxtaposition as much as the next guy – heck, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was pretty much my sophomore year bible. But attending a clean energy exhibition in our southwest desert Gomorrah while the 8000 rpm, 500 hp travelling road show is roaring into town for the Shelby 427 – an homage to the biggest and baddest V8 engine block in the history of Detroit – is even a bit much for me to handle. .
Vegas and NASCAR are both about over the top fantasy, wanton consumerism and conspicuous consumption. Combining sound, noise, adrenaline and a hermetically closed environment keeps you from noticing that the overall sustainability of what you are involved in is somewhat akin to living in a power plant at the mouth of a Chinese coalmine.
But let’s be honest, the environmental footprint of these things is just boggling. According to NASA, Vegas is The Brightest Spot of Earth. Those lights – burning in conjunction with air conditioning more appropriate for a meat locker – illuminates people that primarily flew there from all over North America and beyond. Las Vegas’s direct carbon footprint is not as bad as it might be (as they have proudly issued press releases on), because it gets a huge percentage of its power from 70 year old Hoover dam, just down the road. But all you have to do is fly by it once at night and you’ll know that there are a lot of megawatts working extra hard just to keep the masses entranced with Celine Dion and Cirque de Soleil.
NASCAR is a lot tougher to find a silver lining in. Just to give you a sense of the ethos, NASCAR just manage to switch to unleaded fuel in 2008. NASCAR vehicles get about 4 miles to the gallon. What that means is the racers who finished the good old Shelby 427 each emitted about a ton of CO2 in their wake. In about three hours. I’m far from a carbon saint, but it takes me some 3-4 months of driving to put a ton up in the atmosphere (my flying habit is a different story). At the average NASCAR race, a huge percentage of the fans drive long distances to get there – generally driving big American trucks and house-on-wheels American RV’s. It’s no coincidence that when Toyota finally decided to make a full size trucks for the American market, the first thing they did was get themselves a real NASCAR team
No, this blog is not going down the sackcloth and ashes. The reality is that it’s going to take some time, effort and thinking to get homo americanus to stop taking energy, fossil fuels and the atmosphere completely for granted. People LIKE the stuff of Vegas and NASCAR – just as they liked smoking, driving without seatbelts and the purr of an engine running on full leaded gasoline. Heck, it’s not my thing, but I could feel myself falling into the indulgent trance walking the casino floor . So, just hoping that people learn to turn the lights off and install low flow showerheads a fool’s hope – a changeover has to be driven by some innovative thinking, some policy nuance and the liberal use of the bully pulpit. And then competition and, ergo, markets.
Which is where Vegas and NASCAR can become part of the solution, rather than the problem. Everybody who has ever seen a Hong Kong martial arts film – or opened a fortune cookie – knows that the Chinese symbol for danger is also that for opportunity. President Obama talks about infrastructure investing and technology development as keystones to resuming long-term prosperity. And therein lays the rub – what BETTER place to attack the US’s incorrigibly wasteful ways than these dual beating hearts of self-indulgent capitalism. Let’s be honest with ourselves – is another happy initiative from holier-than-thou bastions of Boulder, Berkeley or Austin or going create anything more replicable than another soy ink, recycled paper, press release?
And frankly, in regard to NASCAR at least, the Government has the upper hand. Remember, the American taxpayer pretty much owns the US auto industry these days. And let’s not forget that auto racing began as a way to demonstrate technology. Around the turn of the century when the Indy 500 was in its early years, gasoline was just one of a couple technology options out there – electric, diesels and even exothermic Stirling engines all wanted a piece of the pie – to be the transport technology of choice. Things like Indy showed the nascent consumer that these newfangled cars were safe, efficient and reliable.
So, as we hit the next inflection point in auto technology, how about President Obama sending his car emissary (reputedly Steve Rattner, ex-Quadrangle Group) go on down to the France (family) NASCAR empire, point out quite correctly that the entire petro-advertising complex they live on is at the end of its era and come up with a set of new rules for 2010 that will start the process of moving to hybrids, electrics, mixed fuels, etc. Give every team the energy equivalent of 25 gallons of gas (I’m flexible on the numbers – maybe ratchet down over a couple years) to go five hundred miles at speed and see how innovation blooms. Teslas, Chevy Volts, Fiskers, souped-up Prius’ – let a thousand flowers bloom under the hot lights of Talladega and Daytona. There will still be plenty of speed – my hybrid goes 0-60 in about 5 seconds and I don’t even have the tires quite inflated right. Put the car companies and the pit crew wizards on the task and I’ll guarantee you we’ll push clean transport innovation faster. And instead of being a Ford or Chevy fan, you can go with electric, hydrogen or hybrid. OK, maybe that’s pushing it a bit.
Vegas is all about light and action – and casino’s competing with each other for the best show, the hottest entertainer, the coolest restaurant. What a laboratory for mass energy efficiency, especially in lighting – a place to bring in LEDs en masse. We’re on the cusp of a global revolution in lighting – how about finding a policy structure to have all the casino’s compete to show who can do most with the least. Most Vegas casinos don’t even have the standard European or Asian system where you need a room key card to turn on the lights. The spectacles around the Wynn, Mirage, Bellagio and Venetian – just to name a few – are all energy hogs of extraordinary degree. They’ve gotten away with it to date, because it hasn’t mattered – to their bottom lines, to their engagement with customers and in their relationships to policy and the government. But that’s all changing quickly.
The potential is just beyond enormous – and as tight and focused a target market as you’ll find anywhere on the planet. Eighteen of the world’s twenty five largest hotels (by room count) are on the Las Vegas Strip, with a total of over 67,000 rooms without having to even make a single turn off Las Vegas Boulevard. For the city, imagine the follow-on effects of becoming the center for hotel/resort energy efficiency expertise.
People don’t necessarily want to change their ways of life and the way they get entertainment – at least not too much and not too fast. People will still want to see racing and they still will want to be dazzled by the distractions of a place like Vegas. But that doesn’t mean that we just sit in the stasis of the past – if we can create the excitement and verve of these kinds of experiences, but with a fraction the energy signature – well, that can’t be a bad thing. And if that occurs – well, to paraphrase the famous saying – hopefully what happens in Vegas won’t just stay in Vegas.
Marc Stuart is the Co-Founder and Director of New Business Development for EcoSecurities, a global carbon trading firm. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the view of EcoSecurities.