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You might have noticed the occasional slanted, mirror-like roof over a community center or government office parking lot, but the fact that they’re solar panels — or the sheer number of them popping up around town — likely hasn’t registered. These solar parking shade structures are part of the Las Vegas city government’s huge collective effort to attain “net zero” status — that is, to eventually produce as much energy as it uses. Since 2011, the city has installed solar panels at 38 of its facilities, enough to produce six megawatts of electricity.

“If you put all the solar panels in neat rows on the ground, all in one place, they would cover about 30 acres,” says Tom Perrigo, the city’s chief sustainability officer.

The latest project comes with the help of the Governor’s Office of Energy, which gave Las Vegas a 14-year loan with 3 percent interest to build three solar parking shade structures: at the city’s East and West Yard maintenance and storage facilities, as well as the Durango Hills Community Center. Together, they’ll produce 1.2 million kilowatt-hours each year. The loan was for $1.24 million, which brings the city’s total spend on solar to some $40 million. Is it worth it?

Yes, say Perrigo and his boss, Mayor Carolyn Goodman. “Everything we’ve invested pays for itself through savings,” he says, “and nothing has come out of city coffers for it. We’ve leveraged grants, utility rebates and tax-credit financing, so we’re saving more than our total debt service.”

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Over time, energy savings add up to a return on the city’s investment. This is because the price per kilowatt-hour is locked in. For instance, on the latest project, the price will equal approximately 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour over the next 25 years. That’s 2.5 cents less than the current utility rate of 8 cents per kilowatt-hour — a rate that will increase over time, while the solar-production rates stays the same. So, in effect, savings will increase.

“We’re saving just under $6 million on our energy bill right now,” Perrigo says. “Our payback is about seven years.” 

Another way solar pays for itself is by hitting its maximum production during peak periods, when energy use is highest and thus at its most expensive. So the city is reducing demand during peak periods and taking a little energy off-grid.

And then there’s the cut in greenhouse-gas emissions. The three new parking shade structures alone will take 23.8 million pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere during their first 20 years of operation, the city estimates. That’s equivalent to 2,273 passenger vehicles or 985 homes.

Perrigo admits that it takes time to realize these benefits, and that such long-term investments are easier for public entities than they are for private businesses. But he’s hopeful that legislation proposed for the upcoming state session will help commercial properties finance similar investments through energy-improvement districts, because it would provide jobs and address climate issues.

“These projects and investments have helped us reduce our level of greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent,” Perrigo says. “We’re back to what we were emitting in 1997, even though we’ve more than doubled our operations during that time. As a result, Mayor Goodman recently won the national climate protection leadership award form the U.S. Conference of Mayors.” 

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