Bring on the french fry juice: Burning Man goes Biodiesel

Mr Blue and Biodiesel

Mr. Biodiesel aka Mr. Blue, pumping the good stuff BM 2006

UPDATE 6/26- This post you’re reading got mentioned in BoingBoing, thanks to Xtra- hot Xeni and WayneCo–gratzi!

Great news! Burning Man is working on shifting our entire power generation load from regular old diesel fuel to clean, green biodiesel, thanks to a very dedicated effort by Mr. Blue of Recycle Camp and many others. It will be used to power things like the medical and fire outposts, rangers stations, BMIR, and other event operations. What does that mean in real terms? It means that 20,000 11,000 gallons of diesel (Turns out we can’t use biodiesel in our heavy machinery, so the number is lower than we’d originally thought) that would have been coming from places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iraq and other human rights holiday spots will instead be coming from old French fry vats and the like in nearby Reno, Nevada.

This would be a huge positive step, on several levels. You’ve probably got some questions, and we’ve got answers:

1) Hey wait a sec: just what is biodiesel, and how does it work?
Glad you asked. In a nutshell, biodiesel is “a diesel-equivalent, processed fuel derived from biological sources (such as vegetable oils), which can be used in unmodified diesel-engine vehicles.” Like regular diesel, it doesn’t need a spark—compress it enough, and it explodes, driving the pistons in your engine. (Thanks, Wikipedia! Read more here.) The result? Lower emissions, less carbon output, greener energy, as well as keeping our money local instead of sending it overseas.

2) OK, so if it’s such a great idea, what took you so long?
Good question. For several years, we had a simple request of Lanceland, the folks that power the center camp grid: when we flip the switch, the lights have to go on. Period. Like most Americans, we never paid too much attention to where it came from or how it was generated.

No longer—as you’ll read below, persistence by burners got us to switch. (We’ve also done something we’ve never done before, namely an audit of our electrical grid. We found that we oftentimes had more generating capacity than we needed—so we’ll be working to size the capacity to the load requirements). Like many problems and their solutions, this one followed a familiar path: ignorance of the issue, relentless hounding by persistent advocate, small successful experiment, acknowledgment of success, big transitional move, and finally, realization of all the benefits of the change along with a feeling of wonder as to why it wasn’t done sooner. It’s quite an interesting story, actually.

3) OK, you’ve piqued my interest…go ahead, tell me a story.

Here’s how it happened, as told by Mr. Blue:

In 2004, several members of Burning Man’s staff and a few volunteers collaborated on reducing the event’s environmental impact. This group orchestrated a series of experiments to bring alternative fuels into the city infrastructure and art, and facilitated the use of environmentally friendly products in infrastructure operations.

For several years prior to 2004 there was talk about trying Biodiesel in the generator fleet. However there was also hesitation and resistance from our power distribution vendor, LanceLand, to use alternative fuels.

With the support of the DPW and the Board, we were able to negotiate a separate contract for a single 45 kilowatt (KW) generator which ran the Greeters station for 15 days straight on approximately 220 gallons of 100% Biodiesel (B100). (It turns out that most generators should run fine on biodiesel, despite a need to change the fuel filters more frequently since biodiesel is highly solvent.)

Still, only a limited number of companies will rent a generator fleet for use in the remote and inhospitable desert environment, and at that time none were interested in allowing alternative fuels in their generators. That changed, however, in 2006, when I was introduced to Kohler Rental Power. They were very interested in working with us to run our energy infrastructure on B100. They won the contract to provide energy for Earth Day 2000 in Washington D.C. on the Mall. They have been researching it ever since and looking for more groups to work with.

Again through the DPW, we wrote up a separate contract with Kohler, this time for three generators for the BM infrastructure. I was also introduced to Bently Biofuels in Mindon Nevada, about an hour south of Reno. They produce B100 from waste veggie oil collected locally in Northern Nevada. A very “Green” Biodiesel by the way, compared to Biodiesel made from GMO Soy grown in the Midwest and then trucked out to Nevada in trucks running on petroleum diesel. Bently Biofuels trucked the B100 up to the playa in trucks that were running on the same fuel essentially. Fuel was also provided to Disorient, Hookah Dome and several personal vehicles. This was cool. We were finally getting there.

The three generators that were part of the BM infrastructure were at the Greeters Station as in 2004, at the Staff Commissary, and at the Man Base. All three ran perfectly, the one at the Commissary ran the longest at almost 30 days, 24 hours per day. The second Biodiesel test at Burning Man was a success! All together, the five generators burned something like 3,350 gallons of red B100, untaxed off road use only fuel, and recorded an estimated CO2 offset of 40 metric tons (88,000 lbs.) vs. the petroleum diesel.

In 2007 we are going all the way. For the first time in BM history, we put a line in the generator Request For Proposal that told the potential vendors that we are going to use biodiesel in our operations and that they should tell us what their position is on using it. Well, in less than two weeks time United Rentals, one of the veteran vendors to the BM Project and generator vendor from 2005 & 6 and the vendor that has year after year responded NO to Biodiesel claiming it is a nationwide, company wide policy not to allow it, suddenly is saying “OK, we’ll do biodiesel.” And, both the other vendors we’ve asked have also said all biodiesel is ok with them, too!

What does this mean? We’re in the last stages of working out the details, but if everything lines up the way we expect it to, it could mean somewhere between 15,000 & 20,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel being used in BRC in 2007. This in itself will bring about a cleaner, greener BRC in one broad stroke. It means that, combined with the planned solar array for the Man base [more on that in an upcoming blog post], Black Rock City 2007 will be running on almost entirely clean, renewable energy!

So, don’t listen to the doubters—positive change can happen, and fast. And when it does, it sometimes comes with a bonus: a faint whiff of French fries.


About the author: Tom Price

Tom Price

Tom Price is the former Executive Director of Black Rock Solar. Prior to that he was the Environmental Manager for Burning Man during the Green Man theme, and was in the Gulf Coast for six months during the genesis of Burners Without Borders. He's been attending Burning Man since 1997, and he's proud to say that his decade plus streak of breaking down from sun stroke on the playa on day three remains intact.

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