A Fabulous Sign Of Las Vegas Going Solar

It’s not really a big deal as far as energy use goes – the sign, famous though it is, is actually of modest stature by local standards, a mere 25 feet tall. But in perpetually glittering Las Vegas, there’s got to be some symbolic value to the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign running on solar power.

Or, shall we say, more or less running on solar power.

The system that kicked into action this week alongside the iconic, 55-year-old sign at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard consists of three solar “trees” – arrays of panels perched on poles. Each tree has six 265-watt SolarWorld panels, giving the entire system a generating capacity of 4.77 kilowatts of power, according to designer Bombard Renewable Energy. But of course, the sign is most obviously lit up at night, and with no energy storage capability attached to the solar trees, they won’t be feeding electricity to the Fabulous sign after dark.

However, the solar trees’ output – forecast to be about 8,000 kilowatt-hours annually – will offset all the power used by the sign. The arrays will also provide shade, sure to be appreciated by the folks who trek to the site on blazing summer days. And local officials said the project makes for a powerful statement.

“We’re planting solar trees at one of the most photographed spots on earth,” County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak said in a release from Green Chips, which led the project. “It’s difficult to make a bigger statement about our commitment to sustainability than at the ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign.”

Solar power makes obvious sense in Las Vegas, and Nevada in general, what with its copious sunshine. And, indeed, the Environment America Research & Policy Center in a July 2013 report said the state ranked second in the U.S. in per capita solar capacity, with 146 watts per person.

The sign project, by the way, didn’t cost taxpayers anything; according to Green Chips it was “funded thanks to generous donations from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), NV Energy and a grant from the Las Vegas Centennial History Grant Program.” Bombard Renewable Energy, “which provided significant in-kind services” to the project, also told us that SolarWorld donated the U.S.-made panels, a new top-of-the-line model [PDF] from the company that is guaranteed to provide module performance of at least 86.25 percent even after 30 years; SMA America came through with Sunny Boy inverters; and DECK Monitoring provided the monitoring system.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.