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Can we have a Green Man?

Can we have a Green Man?

(You can comment on this essay at my blog.)

The Burning Man 2007 theme is the Green Man, representing both nature and environmentalism. Already people are talking about how to be more environmentally conscious at Burning Man, in addition to having a Leave No Trace event.

Unfortunately most of the talk will be little more than evangelism, or perhaps artistic expression of green ideas. The hard truth is that just about anything done at Burning Man will have a very minor effect on its environmental profile. That's because almost all the environmental impact of the event takes place getting to the event.

You can go solar. You can avoid generators like the Alternative Energy Zone. You can buy carbon credits for the wood you will burn. You can, as my camp did, run on biodiesel recycled from discarded vegetable oil. All great things, but all just a drop in the bucket.

The problem is to have our temporary city, we move an entire city to the playa, and then move it back again. 40,000 people, all their structures, and most particularly all the vehicles -- mostly large vehicles like trucks, vans and RVs. Aside from a healthy but relatively minor contingent of northern Nevada burners, almost everybody comes from at least as far as San Francisco, with its 700 mile round trip including the 7,000 foot Donner Pass. Another large chunk comes even further from towns like L.A., Portland and Seattle.

Some come even further, flying or driving thousands of miles. Some even come from overseas.

We burn a ton of fuel doing this. I'm as guilty as anybody, bringing an RV in. That required about 90 gallons of gasoline. But even the best cars will need about 20 gallons due to the mountains. And most will use far more. I'm guessing we bring 10 to 15 thousand vehicles, including thousands of RVs and trucks.

Flying isn't a lot better. Jet airliners only get about 40-50 miles/gallon per passenger. (They do better when full but this is the average.) If you flew 2500 miles from the east coast you burned well over 100 gallons of fuel back and forth to Reno, and more getting to the Playa and to the airport.

Perhaps the only people who arrive green are those who come on a full bus, like the Green Tortoise.

On the other hand, on the playa, in our camp we generated a full 60kw power grid for a collection of about 300 campers using 300 gallons of biodiesel. That included air conditioning 25 RVs. For one gallon per camper. No matter what we did -- going to solar, using less air conditioning -- it amounts to very little next to the fuel burned to get to and from the event.

A rough back of envelope suggests we probably burn over 1 million gallons of fuel getting to Burning Man. The Cooling Man folks estimate is closer to 1.8 million gallons. The few thousand we burn for power on the playa are just in the noise.

What can we do?

We must admit that deciding to create a temporary city in a very remote location is never going to be an environmentally conscious act. It doesn't hurt to try to fix the small stuff (for example one big generator is much more efficient than many small ones) but the only way to make a difference is much harder.

If we were to imagine locating Burning Man near San Francisco, then with the current population that would make a giant change. Or even in the central valley -- but there's no playa-like surface in those locations. So what can we do with the current location?


The first thing that came to my mind was trains. Trains are the most efficient form of transport, by a good margin, though filled busses are not far behind. As we all know, the Union Pacific runs right past Black Rock City, on its way to Sacramento through a shorter pass. It has a spur in Gerlach and Empire.

There's a lot of initial appeal to a passenger and cargo service from at least Oakland to BRC. Indeed, it might be a lot of fun -- Burning Man would begin in Oakland, not 7 hours later. And train passengers could miss the Exodus line, often up to 6 hours long. People arriving would need a way to get their often heavy cargo to and from their camp with no vehicle.

Unfortunately the Union Pacific has been a brick wall on prior efforts to arrange something like this. Even with the help of burners who are UP employees and managers. While new efforts are always possible, it doesn't look good. Aside from the problem of ferrying goods, the trains would have to arrive full but leave empty, since they can't spend the week there. Ideally one would imagine getting an hour or two of track time right on the edge of BRC, and bringing in cranes to unload shipping containers onto trucks if that edge can handle this. Otherwise it would need to be done in Empire/Gerlach and the time to haul all cargo would be long. In addition, a fleet of transports would be needed to move all the passengers to the Playa and their camps, even if their gear came on other trucks.

More possible would be hauling cargo and not people. In this case camps or groups of camps would arrange for shipping containers to be sent by rail to Gerlach and somebody would have to organize a fleet of transport trucks to haul these to each camp location on Playa. This already happens to a minor degree. Burning Man Organization keeps everything in shipping containers at their ranch outside of Gerlach, and some larger camps rent space to store such containers. Trucks move this small number of containers but something much more involved would be required to do a lot of camps.

Of course, the trucks, if they don't stay there, have to drive up to Gerlach at the start, and at the end of the event.

Rail shippers make it hard to ship flamable materials, including the propane and other fuels used in fire art, generator fuel and even generators that have small amounts of fuel within them. These might still be simpler moving by other means. (Pure biodiesel is categorized as much safer than regular fuels and should be able to go by rail.)


You can of course send shipping containers by truck, and already several camps do just this, especially camps from further away. For a green man, camps from the west coast, who normally take the easy way out and send things out in thousands of tiny vehicles, should consider moving to this approach.

It is harder. You have to be far more organized. Many of us know that planning when you will be ready to leave for the playa is hard. Few leave on schedule. This makes being on schedule mandatory.


If people can find a way to get their gear shipped ahead on trucks or trains, it leaves open the option of bus travel for the people. This is quite efficient, though the bad news is it probably costs a lot to keep the busses in Gerlach for the week. That could mean the environmental impact is severely increased by having to send the busses home to do other work.

The Burning Man Organization could try to organize some of this, or burners could do some of it. The BMOrg can arrange things like no Exodus wait for people taking bus or train, or special tickets which include bus travel. Yes, that requires infrastructure work, so I don't want to suggest it lightly, and lord knows managing Exodus has been one of the hardest problems Burning Man works with, but encouraging buspooling might be the greenest thing -- by far -- that can be done around Burning Man. (It also reduces the Exodus overall load.)

If rail is possible, having some central planning to the movement of shipping containers from train to playa could make this truly green man effort work.

Pollution Credits

You can buy carbon credits to offset what you will burn getting to the Playa. Credits for other pollution are harder to find. Credits are cheap in the USA because there are no laws requiring them. European credits are more real and cost more. The Burning Man Organization is arranging credits for the burning of the Man itself.

Even so, credits only cost a few cents per gallon of gasoline. You can offset a tonne of CO2 (about 100 gallons of gas) for $4 wholesale in Chicago and $12 in Europe. For about $40 you can do things like support renewable energy or forest-planting. (Though you can't easily buy any of these credits at wholesale, and retailers charge a huge markup.) Seems a no-brainer compared to the hard choices listed above, or any complex plans on the playa.

In the end this may the the only easy choice people can make. However, credits offset CO2 but not other pollutants, and may not reduce the demand for oil wars. (Credits can be earned both by reducing fuel use, or by making it cleaner, or by sequestering carbon.)

One group, Cooling Man is trying to organize a bulk purchase of carbon offsets for the event.

PV Solar -- It's not easy being green

It's worth talking about photovoltaic solar since many people get the intuition that it's a great way to go green at Burning Man. After all, there is no shortage of strong sun in the high desert.

Getting solar to be economical is tricky. Making solar panels consumes a lot of energy. It used to take 4 years of the complete output of a panel to get back the energy spent in making it. This number has gone down to 1-2 years for better processes. If you buy solar panels that get minimal use (such as just on camping trips like Burning Man) you're not being green at all -- you're just transporting grid electricity in an expensive and wasteful way.

Off-grid solar systems in general have a problem being green because most of these systems are there to charge batteries. But since people don't want to risk running out of battery power, they use big batteries, and try to keep them full. That means much of the time the power from those solar panels is discarded, since the batteries are full enough they can't use all or any of it. Unless there's a way to use the excess power, these systems are not that green.

Grid-tie solar makes use of 100% of the power from the panels, as any excess is sold to the grid. That's good from a green standpoint, but sadly it is not yet economically viable. Many solar owners trick themselves into thinking that their solar panels can pay for themselves or even save money, but alas that is generally not yet true, though the combination of super-high electricty rates and high rebates and tax breaks in California helps it come close there.

Solar makes teriffic sense for really long term off-grid power, such as those emergency phones or remote sensors. For the short term, taking apart a working PV grid to bring to burning man is a lot of work.

I bought a 42 watt solar panel for Burning Man back in 2002, before I had come to the above realizations. A panel like that, unless on a motor, is going to generate about 300 to 400 watt-hours per day. That means you can store its entire output for the week in two of the $80 110 amp-hour marine batteries from costco. In addition, I discovered that no matter how green you try to be, there are people nearby running generators. Generators often running at low output whose power is also largely being discarded, and into which one can plug a charger at close to no fuel cost. So I put the panel on my house and didn't bring it back to the playa.

However, I get the sense many of the panels I see at Burning Man are not panels temporarily borrowed from 100% utilization sites. If your panels go back to somewhere their power is discarded, I'm afraid they are "evangelical green" rather than "true green."

Evangelical Green vs. True Green

Evangelical green activites are attempts to be environmentally conscious as a demonstration, in the hope that a trend can be started or encouraged that will lead to actual "true green" sustainable systems. There can be merit to this approach, but one must be careful. There is a danger of actually promoting "false green" activities that are actually significantly more environmentally damaging than the alternative.

For example, there are arguments that ethanol/methanol production burns anywhere from just below, to somewhat over a gallon of petrofuel to produce the equivalent energy amount of biofuel. Not only is demand for petrofuel not reduced, but we end up making twice the greenhouse gas for the "renwable" energy. Most tellingly, ethanol producers do not use their own product to fuel their farms and plants.


I've seen differing reports on the reliability of wind power at BRC. While there seem to be steady winds on the Playa, it's not as powerful as it seems. However, there is power to be had here for those with wind equipment.


In 2005, my camp and 2 others joined to power our camp on a biodiesel generator. Burning Man also got 3 generators and another camp did the same, so a total of 5 were delivered to the Playa, and a local Nevada company provided B99.9 biodiesel made from recycled vegetable oil. Getting rental gensets that the owner would allow biodiesel in was much harder than it should be, and we paid a fortune to truck them up from Las Vegas. Aside from the fuel for that truck, petrofuel usage was light.

Plans are underway for a much larger biodiesel presence at BM 2007. While oilseeds are not a sustainable way to meet the fuel needs of North America -- we could not meet them even if all the aerable land was converted to oilseeds for biodiesel -- it never hurts to use the waste vegetable oil. (Biodisel requires about 1/15th a gallon of other fuel such as petrofuel in order to process it.)

Avoid small generators

One positive step that's fairly easy is avoiding the use of small generators. They are considerably less efficient than larger ones. 10 people sharing one large generator is way better than running 10 individual units, in addition to being quieter and less smelly per kilowatt.

Unfortunately, building a power grid is not trivial. My camp has done it, and it's work, but worthwhile for silent power. I'll be writing up something later with hints on doing that.

One problem all generators have is that they still waste fuel when idle. And most of them are running at very low capacity if they're just running some lights (especially energy efficient lights) or chargers. Air conditioners, big light shows, sound systems and heavy duty battery chargers are the only things that put real loads on the generators and make them more efficient. When you're not running those, you should try to keep the generator off.

It's also possible, if you don't need AC or a giant sound system, to run well without generators. I have an essay on desert power with lots of hints about that.

Not Burning Stuff

It is hard to be green at a festival so centered on fire. And the truth is, all the clean wood we burn amounts to a modest number of tons compared to the fuel uses listed above. But in a year devoted to a Green Man, we might see a bit less fire, though I doubt the theme is intended to strip what has been a large part of the soul of the event away.


The simplest conclusion may be that actually trying to be green is an impossible challenge, and treat this theme like any other art theme, as a source of concepts for artistic expression. You can express ideas about the environment in your art, and ignore for the moment the fact you burned so much fuel in order to do it.

(You can comment on this essay at my blog.)