Burning Man is a crazy desert art festival and party in northern Nevada. It takes place on federal public lands and attracts about 60,000 people each year. People think nothing of driving 10 or 15 hours to get there, or flying in from the East Coast or Europe. It’s an art festival that is radically inclusive and radically expressive. It’s a good time.
I’ve been to Burning Man five times and am “going home” again for the sixth time in less than a month. I fell in love with the culture after my first time in 2008. I even have a tattoo to prove my love. (No, I didn’t get the tattoo at Burning Man.)
As amazing as Burning Man is in so many ways, it’s not remotely green or sustainable. People generally bring diesel generators for power, or use built-in RV generators for camp power. And did I mention the driving and flying to get there?
There are many efforts, however, to green up the festival, and we are starting to see an increasing number of solar panels in camps and art projects around the Playa. How can we leverage these early attempts at going green to fully solarize the Playa?
Snow Koan Solar is a longtime theme camp that provides solar charging for cell phones, computers, etc. They also provide (surprise) snow cones. All of this is, of course, free because everything is provided by camps free of charge at Burning Man. Snow Koan also provides technical support for those looking to go solar on the Playa. Snow Koan provides solar for its own village, about 300 people now, and they are looking at ways to expand their solar power to about 1,000 in coming years.
Black Rock Solar (BRS), a nonprofit entity affiliated with the Burning Man organization, offers solar panels on a rental basis to art installations, at $50 per panel. This is for the panel only, however, and does not include other components such as wiring, charge controller or batteries; nor does it include installation. So this is a very DIY solution that is great, but necessarily limited in its impact.
Another option that has a lot of promise is for BRS or some other entity to offer community solar systems in each area of Burning Man. The Burning Man grid is laid out in a horseshoe each year, with streets named and marked. Each sector could enjoy the benefits of a large solar system with numerous outlets and extension cords running to the camps in that part of the city.
Who pays for this? Good question. Solar is getting way cheaper all the time, but it still costs a pretty penny for larger solar systems. For example, a 100-kilowatt system mounted on a rack on the Playa would cost about $300,000 today, fully installed. That ain’t cheap by most people’s standards. And if we add battery storage to ensure nighttime availability of solar power it gets even more pricey.
A fee-based model seems the most promising. Under this model, BRS or some other entity would charge each camp that wanted to use solar power a set fee (say, $1,000) per year. If each array powered 50 camps, BRS would receive $50,000 per year for one week of use. The other 50 or so weeks in the year would allow other use of the solar panels. While this model is not a financial slam dunk, it does seem to hold some real promise.
Another option would be for each camp to pay for its own smaller system. For example, a 1 kilowatt system (four solar panels) plus batteries would provide enough power for most small camp needs. A “plug and play” 1 kW solar system is now available for about $3,000 online. This doesn’t include inverter, charge controller or batteries. A battery backup system would cost another $1,000 or so, depending on the type of batteries. Small inverter, charge controller and wiring would bring the total to about $5,000. This, again, is not chump change. But each camp could try crowdfunding or seek community grants, or simply have camp members chip in for this long-term power solution as an investment in their future. Larger camps could scale up as required.
An intriguing new design that incorporates the inverter and batteries directly into the solar panels will soon be available. The Solar Liberator will soon deliver its first products after a highly successful crowdfunding campaign and time will tell how durable these products will be. The 500-watt option would be perfect for camps of three or four people, and they’re entirely modular so they can be scaled up easily for larger camps. You could literally place one of these panels on a car roof and plug in your extension cord for 24/7 solar power. This new technology would make gradual solarization of Burning Man much easier because of the hassle-free nature of this product.
The cool thing is that these small systems could be used at someone’s home or business the other 50 or 51 weeks of the year. Under this model, state rebates and federal tax credits could also be used to significantly reduce the cost. The federal tax credit alone is worth 30 percent of the cost of the system (applicable only to the 500 kW Solar Liberator model).
Better yet, perhaps a SunPower or a Yingli Solar could be convinced to donate panels to a number of camps for one week, in exchange for some goodwill elsewhere. Burning Man is strictly a noncommercial environment, so no company logos or any kind of advertising are permitted. (You can’t buy anything except ice and tea at Center Camp, but you can arrange for transactions like renting solar panels from BRS or renting a bike prior to arriving.) This is part of what makes the Burn so special. But the event’s noncommerciality does make it more challenging to engage in traditional approaches involving donated products in return for advertising or goodwill. In this case, the solar companies donating panels could certainly get the recognition that they deserve at fundraising events by camps prior to Burning Man.
The BRS solar panels available for rent were donated so there is potential to obtain far larger numbers of donated panels.
Another idea: BRS has donated dozens of systems to area nonprofits and schools after being used on the Playa each year. Perhaps these owners would allow BRS to borrow these systems back for one week each year to use on the Playa? This would be far cheaper than buying new systems since it would entail only the labor of deconstructing the systems from where they are currently and reinstalling them on the Playa for a week. The labor for deconstruction and re-construction is not insignificant, but, again, it’s much cheaper than buying a whole new system with installation.
A final way to make Burning Man more green is through the purchase of carbon offsets. The carbon footprint of driving or flying to Burning Man is considerable. I’m not a big fan of offsets in general because I’m not convinced they’re the best way to promote renewables or alternative transportation. That said, certified carbon offsets are available that are probably better than doing nothing about the issue!
In sum, there are numerous ways that the Playa could be solarized. The combination of individual and camp efforts with larger efforts led by BRS and Snow Koan could in just a few years make diesel generators a thing of the past. Lord knows there’s enough sun on the Playa to run Black Rock City on it.
— Tam Hunt is owner of Community Renewable Solutions, a consultancy and law firm specializing in community-scale renewables. Community Renewable Solutions can help developers navigate this complicated field and provide other development advice relating to interconnection, net metering, procurement and land use. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.