Micro Grids and Burning Man

Elon Musk famously came up with the idea for Solar City while at burning man, observing the ubiquitous microgrids which power the temporary city. Every home should work this way, he reasoned. At Burning Man, each city block has many microgrids. They range from very small to very large, and they take many forms. There are also several online communities devoted to discussing issues related to these microgrids at Burning Man.

Incidentally, nearly a hundred billion dollars of venture and philanthropic funds are slated to be poured into the development of microgrids to electrify the developing world in the coming decades. Throughout human civilization, we are seeing a rise of microgrids taking over the work traditionally done (or not done) by larger civic grids. Building civic grids which power large areas is enormously expensive and very technically complex. Many governments in the developing world are not able to do this. Maybe people simply choose to manage their own resources and live off grid, more sustainably. There are any number of reasons why a microgrid is the best solution to power needs in many situations.

Burning Man offers a unique and valuable testing ground for this technology which fosters innovative solutions for this important problem facing humans everywhere. I have an interesting perspective on each of the three types of microgrids I will explain in this post.

What Is a Microgrid?

I like this definition from Wikipedia;

A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources and loads that normally operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional wide area synchronous grid (macrogrid), but can also disconnect to “island mode” — and function autonomously as physical or economic conditions dictate.

In this way, a microgrid can effectively integrate various sources of distributed generation, especially renewable energy sources, and can supply emergency power, changing between island and connected modes.

For our purposes, I will define a microgrid as a system for powering multiple devices which may use batteries to temporarily store electricity, and which can draw power from many types of sources including generators, solar panels, or other grids. We will see that this definition allows us to consider lots of interesting examples.

The Neighborhood-Scale Microgrid

At Burning Man, I camp with Comfort & Joy. At Comfort & Joy, we have an area approximately the size of a city block where over 150 people live throughout the Burning Man event. We are also visited by many thousands of people who participate in our events and community spaces. We have a relatively complex challenge with our microgrid. We need to power many large performance art projects, a gym, several event and community spaces, instant-hot showers, and a full commercial kitchen.  This is no small feat!

The infrastructure is pretty straightforward. A large 20kw diesel generator is the primary power source. This runs to several spider boxes which distribute the power around the camp through standard extension cords. Each tent has power running directly to it.

Most Burning Man camps have microgrids which work in much the same way. Some camps have many RVs which need higher loads and more spider boxes to distribute power, but other than that, this layout is essentially the standard format for the neighborhood-scale microgrid, both at Burning Man and the world outside.

In the future, the biggest potential improvement would be adding batteries and a renewable energy source such as wind or solar. This would replace the diesel generator as the primary source of power. It would mean becoming less reliant on polluting fossil fuels, and less reliant on the generator as a large single point of failure. Many camps are already using hybrid-diesel/solar microgrids like this.

The Home-Scale Microgrid

Comfort and Joy is an example of a camp with a microgrid about the size of a city block. What this means is that I have a tent with all my stuff inside, and an extension cord running out to our neighborhood-scale microgrid. I plug into that to get power. In turn, I use that power for my devices, costumes, lights, to inflate my mattress, etc. This is an example of a home-scale microgrid (or in this case tent or RV).

Many camps are less organized, and have no neighborhood-scale microgrid for campers to plug into. In those cases, each tent or RV will often have a generator, wind turbine, or a few solar panels to provide power. This power is usually stored in batteries, and then used for the home’s needs. This is analogous to off-grid tiny homes or cabins. In fact, many tiny homes make the trek to Burning Man already including their own home-scale microgrid.

Storing electricity is a challenging problem. Most people will try to use lead-acid batteries such as car batteries or deep cycle batteries. These have many disadvantages. Setting them up and using them is technically complex and often counter-intuitive, especially if the microgrid is using more than one battery. Lead-acid batteries will also require almost a day of solid charging to get to full capacity. This just isn’t possible if your power source is solar or a generator. Both will always face interruptions due to dust, leaving your system uncharged.

A better way of storing electricity is with lithium batteries. These are the same types of batteries found in cell phones and laptops. They charge very quickly and provide a much simpler solution to the problem. The downside is that they can be slightly more expensive, but luckily there is a whole industry around products that solve this problem. The big player is Yet with its GoalZero Lithium battery packs.  Products like this make home-scale microgrids a cinch. Lithium battery packs like this will accept power from essentially any source: solar panels, generators, standard electrical outlets, or car cigarette lighters. They store a lot of power very quickly. Then they let you use it via USB ports, standard electrical outlets, or even via cigarette adapters. These products are a very good solution to the power storage problem. In fact, I plan to run my entire burn this year off of one of these without using any source of power such as generator or solar.

Keep in mind there are tons of cheap, excellent alternatives to GoalZero products. Pictured below is the one I am using, the Poweradd ChargerCenterⅡ 370Wh. It is essentially exactly the same as the Yeti GoalZero Lithium 400, but less than half the price. It still has a standard 120 volt outlet, plus USB ports, and it can still accept power from essentially any source: generator, solar panels, or car cigarette adapter. I am using USB-powered christmas lights for interior lighting in the tent. This box on a single charge can power those lights for the entire event while also recharging my cell phone (camera) hundreds of times. I’ll also use this to power some small speakers for BMIR radio and Spotify.

Using USB Is MUCH Better Than Using 120 Volt

Any time we step power up to 120 volts, there is waste. In fact, there is a lot. I the past, I brought a charged car battery to Burning Man which I hooked up to a cigarette lighter socket. I used normal car accessories for all my needs. I even had an inverter to get 120 volts, but mostly I stuck to cigarette and USB connections. Plugging my cell phone charger into an inverter running off of a battery was enormously wasteful. The power savings is huge if you stay at 12 volts instead of going up to 120 volts and then back down to USB through a phone charger or something like that. Just run a car charger straight off the battery!

USB-powered versions of many common electronics are available and they use less power. An essentially identical string of LED christmas lights which plugs into the wall will use a lot more power than one that plugs into USB. More on that in the next section.

The Mobile Microgrid

At Burning Man, every person simply must have a bike. The city is vast. There just is no way to get around without a bike. Because of many hazards at night, everyone is required to cover themselves and their bikes in lights. This prevents many types of dangerous accidents, but it also poses a problem. My first burn, I brought a bunch of Ikea AA-powered Christmas light strands. These worked great, but I went through a half-dozen AAs each day. This is very wasteful, and there is a simple alternative.

You guessed it, USB! This is an amazing and far superior solution to using AA batteries. A simple solar battery pack turns your bike into a mobile microgrid. Just one strand of $7 USB-powered Christmas lights is very bright and can run for weeks off of a battery pack like this. I ended up using two strands just for fun. Having all this power available on your bike also means you can add other cool accessories like bluetooth speakers or plasma balls and of course it can also recharge your devices. A USB-powered microgrid on a bike is more sustainable, more flexible, and less stressful than trying to swap out moopy batteries several times a night.