Tribal casino’s sustainability efforts make others “green” with envy, but in a good way

Harrah’s Southern California Resort employees do clean up at Lake Wohlford.

In a world where many talk the talk about being “green,” the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians and Harrah’s Southern California Resort also walk the walk. It has been said that it’s not easy being green, and that is certainly true, but the Rincon tribe’s quiet insistence on making a statement with the sustainability features at Harrah’s has made it seem effortless—even if it has taken a lot of work, planning and investment of millions of dollars. It also part of an ongoing effort that happens not just during Earth Week, but all during the rest of the year. Harrah’s sustainability efforts include a solar plant that during 2015 generated 113,986 kWh solar energy; which equals 450 trees planted or the CO2 from 90 tons of burning coal. During the same year the resort decreased its water usage by 2.5%; saving roughly 2.3 million gallons. It increased recycling by 10.5%; and diverted 468 tons of material. It switched 90% of light bulbs to LED; saving more than $746,000. During Earth Week last week Harrah’s had a number of initiatives that reminded visitors of the observance. During Earth Week there were “Green Giveways,” including plants, reusable totes and water bottles, LED light bulbs, and recycled home décor. During “Earth Hour,” (which the property observed on March 23, between 8:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m.) they extinguished non-essential lighting around the resort. There were even Green cocktails, infused with fresh, local ingredients at the hotel’s bars and cocktail lounges. Brendan O’Kane, property operations manager at Harrah’s commented, “Our participation in this event is one of many ways we strive to uphold the principles outlined in our Code of Commitment and support the communities in which we are privileged to operate. Caesars recognizes the importance of being a responsible steward of our environment and is committed to environmental sustainability and energy conservation. Throughout the company, we are taking innovative steps to lower our energy consumption, operate more efficiently, and reduce our environmental footprint.” O’Kane has been at his job at the resort for 15 years, since the resort opened in 2002. He talked with The Roadrunner about sustainability in general and some of the recently integrated green initiatives at the resort, which all come under the name: CodeGreen. “I’ve been the Code- Green leader at this property since it became an effort. We were doing CodeGreen related initiatives well before it became a cool thing to do!” he said. “We have a lot of state of the-art green technologies,” observed O’Kane. “There are the smart thermostats in all of our guest rooms and public spaces. They are connected to the Internet so we can maintain them remotely. We are able to adjust our air conditioner on a global scale in our guest rooms as well as individually,” he said.

During “Earth Hour” the resort powered down much of the electricity usage on the property.

This is part of a partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric, in which the utility gives the casino heads up on emergencies such as possible brownouts. The thermostats were installed between 2014 and 2015. Besides giving the casino a global control over the resort’s temperature they also allow monitoring outside temperature and humidity and being able to adjust the indoor numbers in response. “We can react to provide guest comfort before the guest even notices,” said O’Kane. Although the purpose was to save energy rather than to save money, the new technology actually does both. The thermostats make it possible to identify anomalies that might have gone unnoticed for days or weeks before. “We can now address the issue immediately,” he said. “Previously with unmanaged thermostats a guest might adjust the temperature in the hall and it wouldn’t be noticed for a long time. Now we can make sure that all of our public spaces are kept comfortable but also energy efficient.” The casino’s solar plant produces a megawatt of photovoltaic power on 5.5 acres of panels, directly north of the casino. When the solar plant was first installed it cut the casino’s power usage by about 25%. The casino also has a “chiller plant” that pumps chilled water around the entire site. It cools water in a loop and lowers the temperature in the casino and guest rooms. “A lot of people use it in large projects such as ours,” observes O’Kane. “It’s the most efficient way to cool space.” As the water circulates through the plant, it picks up warmth, which is in turn used to heat the casino. “We harvest that waste heat and use it to heat the guest rooms. It’s called a heat harvester. That warmed water when it comes back at the end loop runs through the harvester which absorbs the heat, which is transferred to a hot water loop that runs across induction plates at our boilers which heats the water,” he said. Between them the two closed loop systems keep the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter, while saving a maximum of energy. Bright lights—especially on marquees—are one of the things that most people associate with casinos. But in recent years most of the lighting, including the lighting on the marquee in front of the casino, have been replaced with cold cathode lights, which are just as bright, but use a fraction of the power, and last for many years. “I have a story I like to tell about the marquee sign in our tower,” said O’Kane. “It has thirty-five hundred twinkly light bulbs in it. We would have to send a body to change bulbs every three months. We switched to cold cathode tech. We retrofitted those bulbs in 2007 and I have not replaced one bulb since that time. It uses almost compact fluorescent but in a different format.” Are such efforts expensive, or do they actually save money in the long run? “Yes and no,” said O’Kane. Sometimes the equipment is expensive, but some of that cost is rebated. That was the case with the smart thermostats, the cost of which was 100% rebated by the utility company. On the other hand, the Rincon tribe took a chance in 2009 when it funded the solar array, which cost about $13 million. “That was funded when our economy was not doing the greatest,” said O’Kane. “But the tribe’s commitment to conservation was the tailwind behind the project. They took a leap of faith and said that the economy is going to turn around and that this is the best thing for the business.” He added, “Other things would have gotten a better return, but they invested that money into these projects. It was a long hurdle to get a return on that investment. We have jumped the hurdle and we are now cash positive on that project. That’s a recent development. It’s only recently that we got the returns.” However, because a photovoltaic array has a long life, the return on investment could be long lasting. “As long as you maintain it, solar really never dies. It will degrade a bit with time but as long as you maintain it, it will run potentially forever. At the end of thirty years we will be producing seventy five percent of the original solar.” Whether any more solar is added will probably depend on whether the state or federal governments ever offer more incentives for investing in the technology, as they have in recent years. In 2009 when the solar plant was built the California solar initiative offered rebates that helped on the return on investment. “We continue to monitor what’s going in with rebates at the state and federal level, but for the moment we are capped at 1Megawatt,” said O’Kane.

The solar array at the resort produces 1Megawatt.

The Rincon tribe is a sovereign government and is not subject to California laws. It is, however, making an effort to follow Governor Jerry Brown’s edicts on cutting water usage throughout the state. This is an entirely voluntary approach on the part of the tribe. O’Kane said, “We at the casino follow all of the California requirements, including flow fixtures, and watering schedules. We strive to be good neighbors and although we are probably not subject to the governor we will do our best to save precious resources just like everyone else. “Technology-wise the tribe uses reclaimed water from our waste treatment plant to irrigate the sports field,” he said. Harrah’s incentivizes its employees to do CodeGreen activities at work and at home. “We have a very robust engagement and reward program, called Total Return, a credit based program at the corporate level,” said O’Kane. Employees earn credits and rewards that they can redeem in a “Sky mall” like catalogue. “It’s all wrapped into a Total Return credit program for show tickets to vacations and all sorts of things. The website is pretty amazing. One of the programs we do from a CodeGreen engagement standpoint is ‘Code Green at home.” If they do green activities outside of their work life they are rewarded. We gave away 42,000 credits to employees in the first quarter.” Harrah’s is something of a “green” showplace when it comes to other casinos that look to emulate its results. “We’ve hosted many tribal councils from California and across the nation who have toured our casino operations,” said O’Kane. “Our green initiatives are always part of those. We were the first to install photovoltaic solar to this extent from a tribal perspective in Southern California. I believe we are the only tribe to have a photovoltaic in the scope that we do. But Harrah’s is also part of a larger Caesars Entertainment perspective, and competes with other Caesars properties all over the country when it comes to things like a commitment to sustainability and recycling and energy efficiency. “I like to think we are the standard bearer in the Ceasars brand,” said O’Kane. “We are scored against other properties for energy usage, for how much water is used, employee engagement and customer scores for how much we make customers aware of our efforts.” The result? “We ended 2015 second in company on CodeGreen,” said O’Kane. The property that came in first was Harrah’s Ak- Chin just outside Phoenix, Arizona. It is no coincidence that Janet Beronio is the general manager of both casino properties. “She’s very engaged in the program,” said O’Kane. Harrahs has also won several ratings and awards for its efforts. In 2011 Harrah’s was SDG&E’s energy champion winner. It has also earned a Green Key hospitality rating of four keys, and been given a gold rating by Travel Life, which is also an ecominded rating. It is also a green leader on Trip Advisor. All of these awards are audited. You don’t just decide to award them to yourself. And there is Green Key award from hospitality rating, a four key rating, which is very desirable. We’re gold rated by Travellife another eco rating slanted. We are a green leader on Trip Advisor. You get audited. All audited ratings. We didn’t go out there and just decide to award ourselves. Last week the resort participated in the Creek to Bay “I love San Diego” effort where it cleaned a 4-5 mile stretch of Buccaneer Beach. And last weekend employees took part in “Adopt Lake Wohlford” where they cleaned up the lake’s shoreline and recreational areas. This happens three times a year.