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Green Energy?

"Greening" your energy comes down to reducing the pollution that your solution generates. The pollution from a battery comes from the fact that it’s made of toxic materials, which can wreck an ecosystem if not properly dealt with (like if you toss it in your landfill trash). Rechargeables get some credit since they can go through a lot of cycles before being dumped. A generator is an engine, so its pollution comes from what it’s burning – regular gas, or diesel, or biodiesel. Pollution from a solar panel also comes at the end of its life, since it includes highly processed parts and possibly toxic chemicals.

This page is focused on what you should think about to power an art installation or a camp that involves more lighting than you can handle with palm-sized batteries (AA, AAA, C, D, etc). If you're just worried about how to power your personal blinky lights, go with rechargeable batteries where you can, and consider a solar-powered recharger.

Power Sources

Batteries are essentially a pack it in, pack it out solution. To go this route, you’ll want a “deep cycle” or “marine” battery, available at boating supply stores, plus an inverter, which will get you traditional outlets like you have at home. If your needs are very light, it’s possible that you could run for a week off of a single deep cycle battery, but most likely, you’ll need to recharge at least once, and possibly daily. These batteries charge very slowly, so charging one from your car is not practical at all. See tips below for other options.

A solar solution at Burning Man is almost always used along with batteries for the simple reason that you’re going to want juice at night… when… there’s… no … sun….

Also, the output from a small-scale solar panel is not practical for powering very much in a direct way – the output is low per panel, and it’s not consistent.

Combine batteries with your solar panel and you’ve got a very green solution! More and more small-scale solar solutions are hitting the market these days – very often coming pre-packaged with batteries, inverters, power strips, even radios and air compressors. These are being targeted to boaters and campers, so check online or in Marine or RV stores.

Goodness knows that we get plenty of wind during the event, making a wind-driven generator a very tempting solution. The fact that they don’t require special materials like silicon to operate makes this a potentially less-polluting solution compared to solar.

However, truly small-scale wind turbine solutions are not readily available, and have some inherent logistical challenges that rule it out as an option for most folks. The Alternative Energy Zone camp website does have documentation and pointers for you if you’re interested in building your own wind turbine.

If your energy plans mean that you would need a fleet of batteries and an electrical engineer to hook it all up, and you have neither of those things, you’ll need to consider a generator.

The most easily-found solution – a gas-powered generator – is also the most-polluting solution. Minimize this by buying or renting the smallest and most fuel-efficient generator that will give you enough power for your needs, and running it only when you really need it. Also consider purchasing carbon-offsets, as endorsed by the folks at the Cooling Man project.

Larger theme camps needing to power professional DJ rigs and dancehall lighting systems (20kW or higher) should consider renting a biodiesel generator, as burning biodiesel creates significantly less pollution (and smells much less foul).

Tips & Hints

  1. Keep Your Gennie Happy

    Generators have a reputation for being both loud and smelly – two types of pollution that will be sure to annoy your neighbors. Both of these issues can be addressed with some forethought.

    Running biodiesel will dramatically improve the odor coming out the back end of your generator, but for now that remains an impractical solution for many smaller-scale setups.

    A simpler solution is to address where your generator lives. Plan your camp with this issue in mind – find a spot as far as possible from where anyone’s tents will be (including your neighbors’). Perhaps surrounded by a dozen cars, or next to your truck. This will also begin to shelter your generator from excessive playa dust intake, and give unpleasant odors a chance to dissipate before they reach a human nose.

    Take it to the next step by building a ‘hush box’. Two pieces of plywood is the bare minimum – lean them over your gennie like a sandwich-board and put a hinge between them for a little stability. Five pieces is much, much more stable, creating four sides and a top. This can reduce the noise output dramatically, as well as providing shade that can reduce engine overheat risk. Be careful though – your box needs to have enough airflow so that it doesn’t become an oven. Too small and your generator won’t be able to breathe, or will be at higher risk for overheating.

    For maximum hushing action, add sound-dampening materials to the inside walls. Soft foam works well for this. Remember to keep at least one ‘door’ to the box so that you can get in to service the generator, or to refill it without spilling gas all over the wood.

    Finally, a tarp or metal pan under your generator will keep any oil or gasoline spills off the playa. Use kitty litter or sawdust or playa dust (on top of the tarp, not directly on the playa!) to facilitate cleaning up any spills.

  2. Power Only What You Need

    If you are only planning to power a few strings of lights and a boom box, consider a deep cycle battery with an inverter (turns DC battery power into AC plug-in style).
    Save the generator purchase for when you’re running a sound system with speakers larger than your torso, a DJ mixing board, and/or enough lights to keep a living room-sized space lit up at night for several hours.

  3. Share, share alike

    Many generators on the playa are putting out a lot more power than is being used. Partner with neighbors nearby to share the juice. Even if you brought a generator to recharge your batteries, your neighbor might be willing to let you recharge on their system, if they’re not using all their power.

  4. Be prepared to go the distance

    Bring a lot of long heavy-duty extension cords, surge protectors, and power strips to make it easier to set up a simple electrical grid for however many camps will be sharing, or to make it easier to accept the gift of electricity from a neighbor. Bury your cords in filled trenches to avoid serious accidents at night.

  5. Accentuate the positive !

    Be careful! Inverters and generators make things fairly straightforward to plug-in, but it’s easy to get your cables switched when connecting things directly to battery leads. Check twice, and read manuals carefully.

  6. Batteries like shade too

    Large or small, all batteries can be damaged by heat. When charging or when in use, keep yours in a shady spot. Don’t store your spare battery in your car.

  7. Watch the weight

    When shopping for solar/battery solutions online, remember to check shipping costs and delivery promises. These devices are heavy!

  8. Don’t skimp on the middle-man

    Your inverter is what translates battery power to outlets. If it’s rated lower than what you need for a particular device, you’ll be out of luck, even if you have a dozen batteries! Research to figure out your likely power needs, but don’t let this crucial piece of the puzzle be the problem in your setup.

    Similarly, consider bringing two battery chargers and/or inverters instead of one, just in case your main one fails. This can also make it easier to share power.

  9. Simplify, and reduce your need

    Tempting though it may be to bring a microwave, you could probably do without, right? Take that thought a step further and consider whether you could do with having only personal lights and some rechargeable camp lanterns at night. This would eliminate the need for the whole battery/inverter/generator setup, saving you a lot of money and hassle.

  10. Solar – it’s everywhere

    Very small-scale solar solutions have started to crop up for landscape lighting. These great, cheap examples of solar panels combined with a rechargeable battery are a terrific solution for in-camp pathway lighting. Many emergency-preparedness products like radios or flashlights also come with solar panels and are very useful on the playa.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Whatís the difference between a gas generator and a (bio)diesel one? Gasoline and diesel are mechanically different, and engines (or generators) made to burn one simply wonít work with the other. Howstuffworks.com has a good explanation of the difference.

  2. I have a generator, can I run it on biodiesel? If it runs on conventional gasoline, the answer is no. If it already runs on diesel, you should be able to run it on biodiesel. Check out biodiesel.org for some more information on this.

  3. How do I recharge my camp battery from my car battery? Itís a risky thing to do- you donít want to discover a drained car battery when you are ready to leave Black Rock, and deep cycle batteries are slow to charge, so running your engine to recharge would drain a lot of gas and would also put out a fair amount of smog. If you still want to do it, the best way is with a charger connected to your cigarette lighter. Connecting your batteries directly together is OK for giving your car a jump, but not for recharging.

  4. Whatíre AC and DC and why do I care? AC is alternating current, DC is direct current. AC is what you get from a wall socket, DC is what you get from batteries (like your AA, AAA, C and D, your car battery and your deep cycle). This is why you need an inverter when youíre using a battery - it turns DC into AC.

  5. How many batteries/What size generator do I need to run my ... There are a number of sites on the web that have Ďcalculatorsí that will help you answer this question. One is here.

  6. Can I really set up a solar panel without an electrical engineer? Definitely! Small-scale solar panels, complete with batteries and inverters are becoming increasingly available, often marketed to boaters and campers. Search online for "portable solar" or similar terms. Also look into the Alternative Energy Zone - a group of Burners who have been playing with this stuff for years.

  7. Can I really set up a windmill without an electrical engineer? Itís possible, but not easy. Some members of the Alternative-Energy Zone camps have explored this and done write ups on their experiences.

Resource Links

Renewable Energy

  • The Alternative Energy Zone. AEZ - This is your best one-stop shop for learning how to address your energy needs without a generator (or a wall socket). The AE Zone is a village of camps that has been committed for years to practical solutions for clean and free power. Their website is chock full of stories and detailed technical advice. They also provide help on-playa, with community-building events as well as educational ones.
    E-mail Jolly Roger - Mayor of Alternative Energy Zone at roger (at) jollyone (dot) com.
  • EeSolar. Solar system designers. These are the people responsible for providing the solar system at the Do Lab event, Lightning in a Bottle. They also provided a system that powered the Spoken Word Stage in the Cafe at Burning Man 2006. They have also been responsible for supplying solar power for several art projects in Black Rock City including the Cubatron.
  • Solarliving. Our friends at the Solar Living Institute pretty much rock this topic better than anyone else, and they're super easy to work with.
  • Renewables West. Rents effective, extremely safe and well built solar powered generators to power your theme camp or art project. They are manufactured by Solarover.
  • Solar Power Guide. A guide to using solar power at home.
  • MySolarPower Non profit website that publishes unique and original articles about solar energy.


Other Clean Energy Options

  • BurnCleanProject. Portal for many green resources. A large group of concerned BRC citizens banded together to assist all participants to burn clean.
  • Cooling Man. Cooling Man has been working to make many events and projects carbon neutral and even carbon negative. They can work with you to make your camp carbon neutral.
  • Clean Fuel Caravan. This is a portal for many for biodiesel and veggie oils conversion questions.
  • Fuel Purification Systems
  • Generator Guide. A consumer's guide to electric generators.

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