Clean Power solarcity

Published on August 11th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor


How To Solarize Burning Man

August 11th, 2014 by  

By Tam Hunt, owner of Community Renewable Solutions LLC

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 ten or fifteen 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 long-time 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 like 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 night-time 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, $1000) per year. If each array powered fifty 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 3-4 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% 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 non-commercial 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 non-commerciality 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.

About the Author: Tam Hunt is the owner of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a California- based company that provides consulting and legal advice on project development (brownfield and greenfield) and regulatory advocacy at various state and federal agencies.

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  • Michael Chiacos

    I’m a big fan of solar, I have it on my house and also use the system to power my electric car. That said, solar at Burning Man isn’t very efficient, as it is such a diffuse energy source and it takes a lot of extra fuel to haul out panels and batteries. In fact, if you are coming from a long way with an array such as the one on the trailer below, you may waste more fuel on the reduction in MPG in your vehicle (or having to rent a bigger rig to haul the solar/batteries) than the solar would generate in a week! Burning Man did a report and over 90% of the carbon comes from travel, and only 1% from all the fire art, etc….

    Also, solar panels take a year or two to pay back the embedded energy in construction, which is fine if its on your house or if it is used somewhere else the other 51 weeks as Tam suggests. Not so good if it only gets used a week or two at festivals, as many of these systems do. Rather than spend $5,000 on the 1 kW system plus batteries Tam describes, why not just get a $900 1 kW generator and a smaller battery array, so the generator only runs a few hours a day. Sure you’ll burn a few gallons of gas, but less overall environmental impact.

    Use the money you save to donate to Black Rock Solar, a bunch of burners that install solar on schools, hospitals, and other non profits in Nevada. These systems provided solar dividends for decades, rather than just a week…..

    • Tam Hunt

      Michael, I don’t think you’re right here. Yes, the onsite emissions are low compared to the travel emissions, but note that I discuss offsetting travel emissions at the end. And as transportation is electrified in the coming decades, these emissions will naturally diminish, resulting potentially in a situation where the onsite emissions outweigh the travel emissions. Regardless of the future decades out, there are many benefits from going solar on the Playa far beyond GHG benefits. Noise, for example, is eliminated by going solar, as well as fumes from generators. And you don’t need to buy fuel or worry about running out of fuel for solar “generators.” Also, solar panels take far less than two years to pay back their energy budget. Newer panels are well under six months, and rapidly declining even more. Last, as you note in your comment I do recommend that the solar arrays used at Burning Man be used elsewhere during the year, mooting your critique methinks )*(

      • Michael Chiacos

        Look at it this way. Your 1 kW solar array for $5,000 may average 4 or 5 kWh/day. Its sunny at BRC, so lets say 35 kWh/week. One gallon of gas has an energy content of 33.4 kWh. Not sure the efficiency of a generator, but lets assume 35%, thus you’d need to burn 3 gallons of gas to make up the electricity from your solar. That seems like quite a lot of expense and effort to save $10 and 3 gallons of gas!

        If you drove 1300 miles to get to Burning Man and back, you’d use 52 gallons of gas in an average 25 mpg car. If your large solar array and batteries caused you to need a truck to tow your trailer… well that would definitely negate your savings…. Even if you could fit the heavy batteries and bulky solar panels in a car and just got one MPG less (increased weight or worse aerodynamics if panels on a roof rack), that would wipe out your savings. Methinks solar at Burning Man is like indulgences at the Catholic church. Feels good, but not really effective eco practice. Better to save the money and hassle and donate to Black Rock Solar, as I mentioned…..

        • Michael Chiacos

          I do also agree generators are loud and polluting. However, a little Honda 1000 is lost in the noise and fire at Burning Man. Also, it is quite a hassle to take panels off and on a house or use them in another application so that point is pretty moot. I’m sure if you surveyed all the people with an extra solar panel they use in remote situations or solar backpacks, most of the time they are just collecting dust. Is yours?

          • Tam Hunt

            The Hondas can be pretty quiet but nowhere as quiet as solar panels and batteries. So for mornings or other times when gennies are disruptive solar/batteries are a nice improvement. Yes, taking panels down and putting them back up each year is a hassle but as I point out in the article it’s a lot less hassle than buying the whole system new for the Playa. I agree that this idea probably won’t get much traction, but I do think bottom-up personal solar/battery systems plus additional neighborhood solar systems will go far in solarizing the Playa in coming years.

        • Tam Hunt

          Michael, you’re generally amplifying your original points, which I already addressed. You’re also leaving out the cost of the generator in your financial analysis.

          While I agree, again, that the GHG benefits of going solar on the Playa are minimal (and possibly even negative in some circumstances, as you point out), note that I didn’t focus on GHG benefits in my article as the only or even primary rationale for going solar on the Playa. In general, GHG benefits are certainly a big motivation for going solar, but personally I’m more motivated by concerns about energy independence and pollution, as well as geopolitics. Going solar on the Playa will help people think about solar and energy more generally in their lives and how they can solarize their lives outside the Playa. As the Playa is a microcosm of the larger world, it sends a bad message to suggest that generators are better for the Playa than a personal solar and battery setup that can be used year in year out and in other camping or as an emergency power source during power outages, etc., etc.

          An intriguing possibility will become more viable in coming years: using a solar array to charge EVs on the Playa and then using the EVs as the main source of power. Couldn’t your Volt do this today?

          Since I wrote my article and have done some more research about my own solar setup for the Playa, and also learned about an effort led by EcoBoom to rent personal solar systems next year on the Playa, I’m thinking that the topdown approach of large neighborhood solar systems may not even be needed. If people have access to easy solar/battery rentals or can buy them fairly affordably, then we may see a distributed solar power revolution spring up on the Playa pretty spontaneously.

          • Tam Hunt

            PS. I also agree that there are some circumstances where solar/batteries won’t be the best source of power. For example, I have a backup generator at my Hawaii home for emergencies. And having that source of backup fossil fuel power is comforting, even though I try to avoid using it. The same goes for the future renewable grid: we can and probably will before long get to a fully renewable grid (or close thereto), with natural gas power providing backup during certain times when solar/wind/biomass/hydro/batteries can’t do the job.

  • Kyle Field

    Great ideas. I love that you’re pushing the envelope and getting people’s gears moving 🙂

  • Offgridman

    To the author :
    If you do a little more looking around you will find that 1 Kw or a Kw’s worth of panels are available for 1,000$ or less not the 3,000$ you quoted in the article and there are several types of smaller charge controller’s (1,000-2,500 watt) available for smaller systems or mobile homes in the 75-300$ range . I think that the smaller systems for individual or small group campsites could be set up for much less than you are assuming.
    If it is possible to do some coordination between the different groups and camps to do some bulk purchasing of panels, controllers, inverters, and etc you could do even better on these prices. And perhaps find a local church, shelter, food bank to help purchasing as a non profit entity that can let you use them for the two weeks of the year and receive the benefit for themselves for the rest of the year.
    I like where you are heading with these ideas, and wish you good fortune in getting them coordinated and setup.

  • patb2009

    why not rent these?

    mobile military solar generators with a battery and tow them in, then tow them elsewhere to plug in to grids?

    • Wayne Williamson

      For some reason the link doesn’t open except to show a jpg. Still, the trailer looks cool…Is that about 3kw of cells. Just wondering what the battery setup is…..

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