Green casino: How one tribe cut its energy costs by 18 percent

A constant stream of flashing lights, buzzing slot machines and a ricocheting ring of winning jackpots draw in millions of casino guests each year. Many casinos offer more than just a gaming experience as well, with lodging, spas, golf courses and pools on site.

It’s no surprise, then, that casinos are also big energy users, often operating 24 hours a day in areas with extreme climates and temperature fluctuations. Since the industry consumes a lot of resources and creates massive amounts of waste, the opportunities for pollution prevention are enormous.

One group which has taken steps to green its facility is the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in Santa Barbara County. Located on the reservation, facilities include a full casino with 2,000 slot machines, four restaurants, 106 guestrooms, a pool, a hot tub and a spa.

Josh Simmons, environmental director with the Chumash, speaks about the tribe’s motivations to implement energy and resource saving strategies, as well as the impact on the facility’s bottom line. 

GreenBiz has also published a slideshow of the facility.

Myla Kelly: What was the impetus to green the facility?

Simmons: There were two drivers: reducing our overall environmental footprint and lowering our operating costs.

Kelly: What green features were first installed?

Simmons: The initial facility construction in 2004 included double-walled insulation, a reflective rooftop with Firestone EPDM roof liner, and a wastewater treatment plant that reclaims water for irrigation and toilets.

Kelly: Was there any initial resistance to implement these initiatives?

Simmons: No, all levels of management and ownership supported initiatives that were related to reducing our usage of kilowatts, therms or cubic feet of water.

Kelly: Was a financial return on investment an important driver in the decision to pursue certain greening activities?

Simmons: Yes, absolutely. All of our actions have had an excellent ROI. We, of course, have other considerations such as staff health and performance, but they are not mutually exclusive. For example, we switched to Buckeye green cleaning products (Green Seal Certified) with a Smart Center chemical dispenser. Janitorial staff no longer handles the concentrated chemical products, which is clearly a health benefit, and the casino has saved money by using less product. Another example is our investment in an automated escalator cleaner. Previously, it took two staff days of manual cleaning with very caustic chemicals. Now it is done in a few hours without the need to handle any harsh cleaning products. 

Kelly: Did you face any challenges along the way? 

Simmons: We have a couple of challenges that we face on an ongoing basis. These are:

1. Identifying and selecting the best alternative or technology when there are a variety of options

2. Instituting initiatives that require behavioral changes among staff and/or guests.

Kelly: What are some keys factors which support a successful implementation?

Simmons: Tribal leadership support of these initiatives is critical. Also critical is thorough research into the cost-benefits of each new idea and constant on-going research into new opportunities. Finally, having staff dedicated to continual monitoring of energy and water usage, and frequent audits of waste management have been invaluable in allowing us to identify areas for improvement and track resource savings. 

Kelly: What resources and  grants have been helpful in your efforts?

Simmons: Utilizing the utility (Pacific Gas & Electric, SoCalGas) incentives, audits and programs (Casino Green) have been really helpful. We’ve also been able to take advantage of EPA grants and technical assistance, including a facility-wide P2 Assessment in 2008. 

Kelly: What actions have had the most positive impact on the Casino’s bottom line?

Simmons: Our initiatives to reduce water and energy consumption have led to an 18 percent decrease in utility costs since 2006, despite increases in both utility rates and the connected load. Also, energy system upgrades to reduce use, particularly during peak demand times, have been essential for cost savings.

Kelly: How is that possible?

Simmons: During this time period we started using reclaimed water in all the casino and hotel toilets and urinals, which resulted in a large decrease in city water costs. We converted our building energy management system from the original system supplied with the building to a new one that was much more flexible and provided the support required from vendors to manage our boiler, chiller and air handling systems more efficiently. One specific task that we could accomplish with the new software was to not have the hot and cold water valves open at the same time in the 21 air handlers. You can imagine how inefficient it was to have the heating and cooling operation going on together. The implementation of LED lighting over the last three years continues to lower our energy usage on that meter. We also take advantage of a 100 percent of the building shutdown in a demand response program. This alone nets us a $75-100K payment each year since we implemented the program.

Kelly: What actions are you most proud of?

Simmons: Chumash Casino is one of the first facilities to convert all gaming floor and exterior lighting from CFLs to LEDs.  We are installing 720 solar tubes for domestic hot water use.  We have also implemented a biofuel program to repurpose used cooking oil for fueling our community vehicles. Three cars from our 43-vehicle fleet have been converted so far, with more conversions expected. Finally, we have a 58 percent waste-diversion rate and we are constantly striving to increase that number by focusing on green suppliers. 

For example, we recently began purchasing compostable straws and stirrers, which can be included with our food-scrap separation system. We have found that on the gaming floor, it is more efficient and gives us a much higher landfill diversion rate to collect co-mingled trash and recyclables which are later separated by our waste contractor.

Next page: Future Goals