Lydia Ball aims to light up the famous Las Vegas sign using solar power.

With an estimated 15,000 miles of lighted neon tubing throughout downtown, Las Vegas isn’t the first place you’d think of for a Top 10 list of eco-friendly cities. But if Lydia Ball has her way, that may change in 2013.

Ball is executive director of the Clean Energy Project (CEP), a nonprofit (and nonpartisan) organization dedicated to powering a clean-energy economy through education and engagement with policy makers, community leaders, and citizens on the economic benefits of sustainable energy. In addition to releasing her annual January report gauging Nevada’s progress toward sustainability, Ball has made it her personal goal to light the famous “Fabulous Las Vegas” sign with solar power.

“Las Vegas has a huge amount of solar potential, and people here really support solar energy,” she says. “The sign is our iconic symbol, and I’ve got a plan that would use three solar trees staggered behind the sign, opposite the palm trees. I’m trying to work with Clark County to get the permits and see if they really want to do it. So far everybody loves the idea.”

Ball, who came on board as CEP’s first fulltime director in 2010, admits that she hasn’t always been so eco-savvy. When the Sierra Club hired her for her community organizing skills back in 2006, she didn’t even know what the National Environmental Policy Act was. That first job was a crash course in environmental issues, and Ball quickly found herself drawn to energy issues.

“Energy is connected all the way through our economy like a spider web,” Ball says. “You can’t pull one string without moving everything else.”

After fighting coal-fired power plants as campaign director for the Nevada Clean Energy Campaign, Ball joined CEP. Education has been one of her biggest hurdles: Some business owners initially dismissed clean energy as a tree-hugger’s fad, but now through Ball’s monthly “energy table” with industry, environmental, and citizen groups, people are looking more closely at the bottom line.

“I’ve seen companies and residential homes see a return on their clean energy investment within five to seven years,” she says. “After that, you have free energy, or a significantly decreased cost. In 10 years, natural gas prices may be higher, but we know the sun is going to keep shining for free.”

Ball is excited to see what developments the 2013 legislative session will bring. “Public-private partnership needs to happen,” she says. “Take the transmission line that goes from northern Nevada to southern Nevada: Public utilities are partnering with the private companies that are building that line, and it’s going to save money by allowing more renewable energy to be connected to the grid.”

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