We used solar to power our artwork at Burning Man this year. I thought I would write a little about it because it’s a good story and some have been curious.
This was our first time ever using “real” solar before (outside of some cheap complete-package landscaping lights). We weren’t planning on it originally, we were going to trek out to the art every day, bring our battery back to the car, and charge it using the alternator. Not the most glamorous solution clearly, but providing power off-grid is expensive and and a challenge, and we are used to doing art on a budget. But then we learned about Black Rock Solar’s RASPA program, which allowed us to rent panels for nearly nothing. We had to buy the controller, the wiring, and the battery (which we already had), but this sounded like a great chance to invest halfway into a solar setup, without having to pay $500 for panels.
BRS couldn’t provide us with any help on designing the system. They have their own work to do, and besides, radical self-reliance and all that. If they walked every artist through the process, it would have taken months of time. And we didn’t just want someone to build our solar setup for us anyway. We wanted to learn how to do it. So we embarked on a crash course in solar tech using the internet. We got it all mapped out, it seemed doable, so we decided to go for it. After all, Burning Man is best when you are trying something new that is a bit outside your comfort zone.
I admit we were a little disconcerted when we got to the playa, and thought we had maybe made the wrong call. It took us a couple days until we could finally figure out how/where to get our panels, and the people we spoke with could answer literally no technical questions about the panels. Even a small question about the connectors on the back of the panels was met with a “nope, nothing, no info, talk to your engineer, they are responsible”. We were the “engineers!” That is to say, there were only two of us, nervous artists who were really interested in solar but craving a little bit of newbie guidance, or at least an assurance that we could figure it out.
However, the saving factor was the one bit of advice we did get. We were told to go visit the Black Rock Solar camp, where “maybe someone could help us”. We were lucky enough to meet Eli, Big Eli, and one more guy whose name I unfortunately don’t remember (not as easy to remember as two Eli’s). They were very patient, and let us explain our system and our question, and as soon as they understood what our question was, they assured us that it was, indeed, no big question at all. They helped us out with crimping a few connectors, having the proper tool which we lacked, and sent us on our way with our confidence restored. A few days later, when we had a problem with blown fuses, I came back to BRS camp and they were just as friendly if not more so, and walked through the wiring with me in about 3 minutes, and set our worries at rest, with nothing more than a little advice by way of their own experience and a handful of gifted wire nuts.
This is the best of Burning Man, really, and the part that never gets coverage in the media. It is like learning shit off the internet, but in real life. It is a concentration of the way any sort of creative network of people works. People everywhere are doing cool things, and you want to do cool things, and you get together and talk about it because it is neat. And it isn’t just a Maker fest either, where people are showing off their cool toys. At Burning Man, you are trying to build it, under harsh conditions, with only the resources that you brought with you. Obviously, you can’t plan to rely on others to do your stuff for you. But, you can’t always expect that you have everything you need, either. There are tons of knowledgeable people around, and the spirit of camaraderie in building cool things is so strong, that if you ask nicely and clearly, there is very likely someone who is more than happy to answer your question, point you in the right direction, and even maybe give you a hand. Because within that polite question and response, is the shared implicit knowledge that that is what the event relies upon.
At the end of the burn, we had a week of up-time on the solar with no problems, and our art project was a success. We also walked away with a better understanding of solar, and enough confidence that we can’t wait to try solar again in the future for another project. The best story of the week happened when our car battery died when we were out at the art project, and using our newfound knowledge, were able to jump our car using the panels. Never felt quite as solarpunk as that. Now I’m looking at every surface, wondering if I could mount a 250W panel to it.
Also, we can’t say enough about the folks about the BRS camp. We’ve learned a lot of new technologies as artists by trying them: networking, unix, radio, electronics, etc. With each one, what really makes the difference is experts who are willing to take the time to talk with newbies… not to do it for us or to teach us everything about it, but to be a fail-safe in the event of roadblocks, so that we have the confidence to forge ahead and learn on our own without overly worrying about putting our project at risk to an extent that we decide not to try.
I guess that is kind of a lesson for learning in general.