Student Analysis Could Help the World’s Largest ‘Leave No Trace’ Event Go Carbon-Neutral
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After a day gallivanting in Nevada’s dusty Black Rock desert, attendees in the know at Burning Man—the weeklong counterculture bacchanal that begins Sunday—head to the “Foam Party,” where sprays, suds and skin are in ample supply.
But activities like this human car wash, which uses roughly 7,000 gallons of water a day, can be dirty business for Burning Man’s organizers, who want the annual revelry of free-spirited living to also be free of greenhouse gas emissions.
A new analysis of energy, waste and water interventions by University of Maryland environmental science and technology (ENST) students may offer a boon for the event’s 2030 carbon neutrality goal, and less burn for the planet. Developed this past spring as part of a senior capstone course—in partnership with the ENST alums behind the Burning Man Project installation, Ripple—the proposal outlines technologies, practices and continued education to get Burning Man off the grid, and serves as a model for other communities.
“To support 80,000 people in the middle of a desert takes a lot of energy, water, food waste management—all that stuff. Burning Man is sort of a carbon bomb,” said ENST Assistant Research Professor Peter May, who mentored the students on the analysis. “There are elements of Burning Man already in play to reduce the load, and we thought, how can we accelerate that schedule? What it would take to get there?”
Established in 1986, Burning Man transforms 4,000 acres of Nevada desert each year into a teeming, raucous “social experiment" the size of a small city. Steeped in the principles of community, art, self-expression, self-reliance and radical inclusion, it is marked by the burning of a 40-foot wooden effigy on its penultimate night. But its remote location, explosive attendance rates and ample activities—from live DJs to a bikini armor workshop—require significant resources and power. Organizers have made concerted efforts to educate attendees and encourage reuse and regenerative practices, but supplies—like water, food and fuel—must be trucked in and waste shipped out.
Transport, along with the estimated 10,000 generators continuously running at Burning Man, create a substantial amount of carbon, said Neil Gomes ’23. “A lot of attendees are really good at preserving resources, but I don’t think they’re thinking about how all of those supplies get there or the carbon emissions they produce.”
The analysis calls for new technologies—including solar PV shades, water recycling and anaerobic digesters to break down human waste—to negate the massive energy drain. For example, mandating rooftop solar panels for the thousands of RVs that attend each year could generate four megawatts of power each day with just six hours of sunlight, enough energy to potentially operate much of Burning Man. Employing an on-site anaerobic digester could produce both energy and a fertilizer biproduct. Water purification trailers could create safe drinking water from wastewater using ultra-filtration, reverse osmosis and UV treatment.
“I think the scale of the project really helped us understand that these interventions could mean a lot, not just at Burning Man but beyond,” said Hikaru Dunham ’23.
In 2020, a team of UMD alums and students was one of 10 selected to win the Land Art Generator Initiative International Design Challenge for its design, Ripple, a self-sustaining, environmental restoration base that pays homage to Indigenous traditions and the region’s ecological diversity It became one of the first permanent structures built on the Burning Man Project’s Fly Ranch in Nevada.
In addition to their collaboration with Ripple’s UMD alums and other team members, students consulted with Rico Newman, a Piscataway tribal elder, on engaging with regional Indigenous tribes and discussed logistics and existing carbon-reducing efforts with Black Rock Labs, an entity experimenting with new technologies at Burning Man.
The ideas are scalable and could be introduced to smaller, regional “Burns” to gauge their performance, said Matthew Prinn ‘23. Their impact could stretch beyond the seven days of desert artistic debauchery, too; the same strategies are suitable for similarly sized communities, he said. A proposed fleet of Dragon Wings—solar-powered mobile generators with extendable photovoltaic panels, available commercially—could not only negate Burning Man’s carbon footprint; it could be moved to neighboring tribal communities off-season to provide power and a revenue source. A 25-acre Dragon Wing farm could create enough energy to power 1.8 million homes.
Earlier this summer, May’s students and the Ripple team presented a case for a more sustainable Burning Man at the annual American Ecological Engineering Society’s Conference in Tampa. They will submit a paper in October to the Journal of Ecological Engineering Design.
Their ideas could catch fire with organizers and attendees alike by aligning with Burning Man’s credo of radical self-sufficiency and experimentation, May said.
“I’m hoping that with what these students have put together here and the right kind of soft touch, Burning Man can accelerate their time scale—because we’re running out of time,” he said.
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