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Black Rock Solar
Jeremy Faludi, 16 Jan 08
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Ever heard of someone donating a 90-kilowatt solar array? Ever heard of them doing it over and over, and inviting you to help? Meet Black Rock Solar, a child of Burning Man's Black Rock City that plans to make a difference in the rest of the world.

Burning Man is known for being a huge party out in the desert. For those who know it better, it's also a utopian community based on ideas like the gift economy. For those who have been watching these last few years, its utopian dreams have started to spill out to the rest of the world. First was Katrina relief, which expanded to become Burners Without Borders. Then there was the attempt to get people thinking about sustainability this past year, with 2007's Green Man theme. Now, there is the nonprofit org Black Rock Solar. According to executive director Tom Price, "Our goal is to build 500KW of low or no cost solar power for schools, hospitals, and community centers across Nevada in the coming year, and are looking to other places with strong rebate incentives, like Boulder and Austin as well."

Black Rock Solar is a direct offshoot of Burning Man 2007's "Green Man" theme. One of the biggest initiatives of 2007 was getting the Man and the pavilion below it to run entirely off of solar power. But what would happen to the solar panels after the festival was over? How about giving it away to the tiny town nearby? Paul Schreer (a.k.a. Blue), a Burning Man employee and volunteer organizer, emailed that "Rod Garret, Black Rock City Designer & designer of all of the Man Bases... actually conceived the idea to gift the array during talks that took place at First Camp in August 2006". Last December, it actually happened.

Out in the desert, Gerlach and Empire, Nevada, are the two closest towns; their combined population is just 500 people. Black Rock Solar's December press release said the 90 KW array installed at Gerlach's school will produce an estimated 162 megawatt-hours of electricity each year for the next 25 years. This is nearly all the school's power, and the energy saved should equal $20,000 per year--with just 83 students, that's about $240 per student per year.

That's just the beginning. Black Rock Solar also installed a solar array for a hospital in Lovelock, Nevada, and is already planning other projects where they will donate free solar power arrays to low-income communities. How is it possible? Rebates and free labor. As Price said:

About half the cost of installing solar power is profit and labor, so if we don't care about the former, and can slash the latter, we can build power for next to nothing. For every dollar someone donates to us, we can build enough solar power to generate $7 of free, clean energy over the life of the system--a great return for them, and the planet.

We're like modern day barn raisers--getting the community together to build something of great benefit none could ever do on their own, only in this case it's not a barn, it's a power plant.

The other half of the cost of installing solar power is the panels themselves. Today's prices are around $5 per watt. However, Nevada rebates for installing solar power in a school or public building are also about $5 per watt. Thus, if you can install them for free and borrow money until the rebate check arrives, you can have free solar power. Nevada is not the only place this can happen: New Jersey also has generous subsidies, and some other cities across the country do as well. Before you complain about taxpayer money going to subsidize expensive power, allow me to point out that America has a long history of government giveaways building industries (like the railroads) and changing livelihoods (like the Homestead Act). All industrialized countries should be pushing subsidies to kick-start cleantech industries like solar. After the industries have matured those subsidies can and should disappear, but in the early stages they need help to be competitive. Building solar arrays for free is, of course, surprisingly competitive.

Black Rock Solar by itself could not have made this happen; its story is that of a clever "stone soup", bringing together different parties who could accomplish different parts of the project and benefit from it. This was also a key to the success of Burners Without Borders, bringing intelligent and motivated people into a disaster area to leverage whatever resources are around. For the solar revolution in Nevada, there are three main players: Sierra Pacific Power, MMA Ventures, and the local communities (in this case, the Washoe County School District.) Sierra Pacific Power, the utility company for the area, was responsible for the rebates and benefits by having more peak-hours generation capacity built into their grid. MMA Renewable Ventures, a financial solutions company in the energy industry, was responsible for loaning the money to buy the solar panels and was then paid back by the rebates; the transactions cost them nothing, and give them a great poster-child; the additional volume of business presumably also helps them build leverage in the industry. The local school district (or other beneficiary of a future project) gets the obvious benefit of free power, and provides the stage for motivated volunteers to create their green revolution. The many volunteers of Black Rock Solar get the thrill of personally building a bright green future, taking down the coal and oil economy one building at a time. The process of working on projects like this also builds community for the volunteers, personally connecting them to the towns and schools where they do their work, as well as the other volunteers alongside them. As a former Katrina relief volunteer, I can attest to how good this can feel, and what a great bonding experience it is.

They are not the only ones rallying volunteers for solar installations. In San Francisco, Grid Alternatives has a Solar Affordable Housing Program, where they "train and lead teams of community volunteers to bring the benefits of renewable energy technology to low-income families who need it most... helping low-income homeowners install solar electric systems on their own homes." If you have some free time, they and Black Rock Solar have open calls for volunteers. You could also start a program yourself; the secret to the success of Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar, and even Burning Man, is not waiting for someone to call on you to do something, but just getting up and doing something that you think should get done.

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I love the stone soup analogy. Black Rock Solar offers an inspirational example of "anything is possible" when the intent is clearly defined and the initiative is proactive; a win-win solution.

With creative and cooperative effort, we can bring about the change we want to see. The side benefit, in the process, is a deeper, richer sense of community where we all appreciate each other a little bit more.

Please check out my blog - the New American Village.

James Polk

Posted by: James Polk on 24 Jan 08



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