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Burning Man backs solar-power project for Nevada towns

Nonprofit partners with renewable-energy venture and a Nevada power company to install solar arrays in public buildings.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in Gerlach, Nev., members of the Burning Man community are expected to demonstrate that they mean what they say when they say they try to leave places in better shape than when they found it.

That's because, at the ribbon cutting, a new Burning Man-supported nonprofit called Black Rock Solar plans to publicly unveil its plan for bringing no- or low-cost solar power to public institutions in disadvantaged or financially depressed communities in Nevada and beyond.

The idea behind Black Rock Solar is to find worthy recipients for whom to donate fully installed solar arrays that can then provide a source of free power for years to come. Black Rock Solar is partnering with MMA Renewable Ventures and Nevada utility company Sierra Pacific Power to provide the labor, expertise, and equipment necessary to get the solar arrays on line.

MMA will donate the equipment, the costs of which will be largely offset by rebates available under Nevada law to public users of solar power.

Already, Black Rock has installed a 30-kilowatt array at a hospital in Lovelock, Nev. Now a Gerlach school--a side-by-side elementary and middle/high school at which the ribbon-cutting ceremony is taking place--will be getting a 90-kilowatt array that should provide as much as $20,000 a year in free power. The rebates for those two projects total about $600,000.

"As a whole, the community looks at it like, 'Wow, this is a big change. You really are putting your money where you mouth is.'"
--Carol Kaufmann,
school principal

Lovelock and Gerlach are two of the closest communities to the Black Rock Desert, where the annual event is held each summer. And to some in the area, Black Rock Solar is a very good way for those involved with Burning Man to build new bridges to local residents wary of their presence.

"A lot of the older people of our community...are real reticent about accepting (the Burning Man community)," said Carol Kaufmann, principal of the school--the Earnest M. Johnson Elementary School and Gerlach Middle and High School, which is getting the new solar array. "But as a whole, the community looks at it like, 'Wow, this is a big change. You really are putting your money where you mouth is. You really do want to help the community.'"

Kaufmann explained that the local school district has determined that the Gerlach schools can keep all the savings that accrue each year due to the free solar power. And that, in turn, will enable the school, in a remote area about 100 miles northeast of Reno, to pay for new science and entertainment initiatives that have, until now, been out of reach.

For years, Burning Man has attempted to give back to Gerlach by donating some money earned at the arts festival. It also helps Gerlach and other local communities indirectly by bringing millions of dollars in revenue to the area through the money spent by event attendees.

Burning Man attendees have also put a great deal of effort toward helping victims of Hurricane Katrina through an organization known as Burners Without Borders, which formed immediately following that disaster.

Tom Price, a founding member of Burners Without Borders, has been named executive director of Black Rock Solar. And he said the nonprofit's mission statement is to support communities like Gerlach, Lovelock, and others by creating cost savings they can use for whatever they want.

Each year, Burning Man focuses on a theme, and in 2007, it was the so-called "Green Man."

Many scoffed at the environmental credibility of an event that results in mammoth amounts of fossil fuels being burned, unmeasureable amounts of product packaging being used and thrown away, and never-ending plumes of smoke towering into the air.

But in spite of those truths, the event did make progress, using solar power to light the neon surrounding the "Man," the effigy at the center of the event, using biodiesel fuel for official vehicles and generators, and

It is in that spirit that Black Rock Solar has emerged.

And to Price, the nonprofit's goals are emblematic of its willingness to look beyond its own resources.

"This is only possible because of a really unique...partnership between volunteers and a finance entity, and a public-utility company coming together like this, where the sum is greater than the parts," he said.

To Matt Cheney, MMA's chief executive, being a part of the Black Rock Solar project is a chance to help communities that don't usually get to participate in renewable energy.

"We think the biggest corporations in America should be able to benefit from these technologies," Cheney said, "as well as those who don't have a lot."

MMA will be contributing expertise, labor, and the time and energy of its professional staff to the various Black Rock projects, Cheney said. In addition, the company will provide the up-front funds required to procure and install the solar arrays in advance of the rebates.

For its part, Sierra Pacific Power is excited to be able to help communities like Gerlach, Lovelock, and others benefit from the kinds of green technologies that are beginning to make inroads elsewhere.

The Nevada rebate program is designed to support installation of solar power in public buildings throughout the state, according to John Hargrove, Sierra Pacific's solar-generation program manager.

All told, the rebate program can help offset costs of installation for up to 760 kilowatts of solar power per year in public buildings, and another 2,000 kilowatts specifically for schools.

That means that Black Rock has a lot of room to operate, if it decides to move on to projects beyond that of Gerlach and Lovelock.

And that's precisely what the organization intends to do, Price said.

He said Black Rock currently has about a half-dozen other projects in its pipeline, though none appear likely to be completed in the immediate future.

Black Rock Solar is also hoping to extend its work beyond Nevada. Price said Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo., both have rebate programs similar to that of Nevada and could therefore support future efforts.

In general, solar-rebate programs are a success, particularly given that few institutions would invest in solar projects without such rebates. To date, such programs have been instituted, to some degree, in Canada, Japan, Germany, and California.

In the end, Black Rock Solar and its finance and utility partners say they want to help make a difference to people who are usually left out of the innovation parade. And because of the dependence on donated labor and the rebates, they are able to do so without incurring huge costs.

"We see ourselves as a Habitat for Humanity of renewable energy," Price said. "We're not here to take jobs away from anybody...We're focused on doing projects that otherwise wouldn't get done, or that spur innovation and adoption by creating high-profile examples people can be inspired by."