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Burning Man takes on green tech

Organizers of the festival decide to put their money and energy where their mouth is and promote environmental responsibility. Images: Celebrating clean tech at Burning Man

If you head to Burning Man this summer and see an 80-foot slug belching plumes of fire as it inches across the desert, don't worry: it's not an environmental disaster.

It's quite the opposite. The slug, named Mechabolic, will be converting the festival's garbage into clean energy as people walk around inside it to see the process in action. Artist Jim Mason's Mechabolic is a centerpiece of this year's Burning Man theme, "Green Man," which celebrates clean energy, green technology and environmental responsibility. The theme also provides an opportunity for organizers to show they are serious about using the festival to help make the world a better place.

"It felt to me that the time had come to do the first overtly political theme" in Burning Man's 22-year history, said founder and director Larry Harvey. "Not political as in party or ideology, but something that would inspire people to do in the world what they do at Burning Man."

For years, Burning Man organizers have espoused a mission to "leave no trace." And many participants say that goal has, in fact, made their conscientiousness about cleaning up after themselves continue after returning from northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held late each summer.

Even as that philosophy has spread to the more than 80 Burning Man-esque regional events around the country and the world, however, the event has been seen by some as a poster child for hypocrisy. Creating hundreds of pieces of fire art that spew smoke and ashes into the desert air, and bringing millions of dollars worth of food and drink in non-recyclable packaging, participants have hardly been leaving no trace.

Last year, however, a group calling itself Cooling Man, decided to raise the money to buy carbon offsets for the environmental impact of the burning of "The Man," the wooden effigy that serves as Burning Man's central art piece and is immolated near the end of the event each year.

This year, Cooling Man is taking that goal a step further by trying to raise money to buy enough offsets to compensate for the event's entire carbon emissions, according to Tom Price, coordinator of Burning Man's green efforts. Price said it will cost an estimated $7 per participant to achieve that goal, which he admitted was ambitious.

When Burning Man attendees arrive in the desert this summer, they will find no shortage of art pieces and installations focused on the green theme. The most visible of all of these will be the so-called green pavilion, on top of which the Man will be installed.

According to Price, the pavilion will be tantamount to a world's fair of green technology, brought to the desert by companies doing some of the most advanced work in the field.

Yet, in keeping with Burning Man's anticommercial ethos--there is no buying or selling of anything at the event except for coffee and ice--the companies who install their technology in the pavilion will not be allowed to display their brands or logos.

A related installation is a clean technology conversation dome, organized by Melody Haller, a Burning Man veteran and president of San Francisco public relations firm Antenna Group. The project will bring together many other Antenna clients for public discussions, lectures, films, demonstrations, donations of green technology and clean energy, and opportunities to meet and talk to some of the world's most accomplished scientists.

"I encouraged my clients to do this with the idea that this setting, in the middle of the desert, is a situation that makes you very aware of the real cost of your lifestyle," Haller said. "Things you take for granted when you walk in a room and flip on a switch, you don't take for granted when you're in the Black Rock Desert."

One of Haller's participating clients is B.J. Stanbery, CEO of Austin, Texas-based solar energy firm HelioVolt. For Stanbery, who has never been to Burning Man, being part of Haller's project is something he couldn't pass up.

"I personally see it as an opportunity to build a bridge between artists and technology," Stanbery said. "When I put on my corporate hat, I realize that there may be some risk. I also recognize that as an entrepreneur, it's unreasonable to expect reward without risk."

Price is also excited about some of this year's less artistic projects involving clean technology, including the donation of a solar array to power the lights on the Man throughout festival. After the event, Price explained, all the solar equipment, donated by San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures, will be given to the town of Gerlach, which borders the Black Rock desert.

The idea is that the solar equipment will produce enough extra energy for the town to get energy credits to give to MMA to help pay for the solar array.

Price estimated that the donated solar equipment will produce around a third to a quarter of the town's total energy output at no cost to Gerlach.

Burning Man also teamed up recently with the Sierra Pacific Power company to give Gerlach residents new compact fluorescent light bulbs to replacing residents' old incandescent bulbs.

"The key to solving the energy crisis is first conservation, then innovation," Price said. "So in Gerlach, we're helping people to save energy first, and then we're building green electronics."

Ultimately, Burning Man and its partners in the green energy projects are hoping to make Gerlach the first town in the United States, if not the world, to produce more energy than it uses.

Price is also excited about Mason's Mechabolic, which is described on its Web site as "a large-scale bio-imitative installation of hydrocarbon-based fuel production, transformation and consumption."

Burning Man participants will be able to feed Mechabolic garbage as it "slithers across the desert."

The site also indicates that "all ingested trash will be converted to clean biomass foods/fuels," and "the Mechabolic will re-ingest the resulting foods/fuels to power its own locomotion as well as a variety of high altitude fire effects."

Price also touted a project called the Single Cell Solution (PDF) by an artist known as Dr. Friendly. This is designed to take exhaust from generators and feed it through a bed of algae, which eats the carbon dioxide, secretes an oil, and produces biodiesel that is then fed back into the generators.

As part of this project, Burning Man is switching its fuel supply for the hundreds of generators necessary to power various projects from diesel fuel to biodiesel from french-fry cookers in Reno.

And to Price, the ability to bring all of this green technology together in one place is something that will hopefully have a widespread effect.

"Creating this world's fair of emerging technology in front of 40,000 of what are clearly early adopters, tech-savvy, networked people--it's like a super-rich bed of compost for ideas to germinate in," Price said.

For Harvey, the green theme is a chance to show the world that Burning Man is serious about its many altruistic philosophies.

"It will affect nearly everything we do and can lead to a dramatic effect or transformative effect, and we're betting on transformation," Harvey said. "We're betting that in 10 years' time, the culture we've created will have met Main Street and will be alive and thriving in hundreds or thousands of places. And people needn't necessarily come to the event."