Clean tech entrepreneurs head to Burning Man to model a post-fossil fuel future
In many ways, Burning Man is an eco-urbanist paradise. It is a (mostly) car-free city designed around pedestrians and cyclists, where respect for the land and reducing waste are deeply respected tenets.
The temporary Black Rock City is constructed and deconstructed over a few weeks in the Nevada desert each summer. Its ephemeral nature could also provide a blueprint for pop-up infrastructure for refugees and people displaced by environmental disasters.
But the event’s eco-conscious spirit doesn’t necessarily make it green. Burning Man has major energy needs to power the art installations, music, and other interactive experiences that make the event what it is. That’s where Black Rock Labs — and a Vancouver, B.C. startup — come in.
Black Rock Labs is the innovation arm of the Burning Man organization. Its team dreams up clean power and sustainability solutions to test in the extreme conditions of the Nevada desert in order to scale them beyond Burning Man. The organization works on a range of products from bio-filtering port-a-potties to solar power.
“We are dedicated to helping teams form, test in the most extreme conditions, and scale solutions, all with love at the core,” said Black Rock Labs co-founder Ryan Wartena.
At this year’s Burning Man, taking place the last week of August, Black Rock Labs is launching its biggest solar deployment yet. To pull it off, Black Rock Labs enlisted a handful of clean tech startups including Portable Electric.
Vancouver, B.C.-based Portable Electric sells and rents solar power stations designed to replace gas and diesel generators. But the startup won’t be selling or renting anything in Black Rock City. One of Burning Man’s principles is decommodification. That means there is no buying, selling, or bartering once Burning Man participants step onto the event site, affectionately known as The Playa.
Everything attendees experience at Burning Man — from music and art to cocktails and photobooths — is a gift provided by other attendees who have self-organized. Portable Electric’s gift comes in the form of its VOLTstack battery generators, which will support art and music that other campers provide.
Portable Electric first deployed its solar generators at regional Burning Man events in Canada, according to founder Mark Rabin.
“It really embodied that essence of Burning Man,” he said. “There’s new technology, let’s get out there and see what it can do. That’s going to be a huge thing in moving Burning Man forward, whether its regional Burns or the large Burn down in Nevada, we have to start transitioning as a global organization because if Burning Man can’t do it, what does that say about the rest of the planet?”
Ultimately, Rabin’s goal is to drive a broader conversation about transitioning away from fossil fuels. It’s an issue he’s seen up close throughout his career; Rabin worked as a petroleum geologist in the oil industry for years before taking the entrepreneurial plunge in 2014.
Rabin hopes the solar power deployment at Burning Man will provide a new model for collectively-owned and financed sustainable infrastructure. He envisions a future in which the technology moves from Burning Man and other events to disaster relief zones and refugee camps.
“This is what I love about Burning Man and this style of innovation,” he said. “There’s innovation in technology. There’s innovation in the deployment. But there’s also innovation in collective financing and cooperative ownership because one person really doesn’t need to own a $10 to $50,000 solar power system for a 10-day period and then have it sit in a garage for the rest of the year.”
“I really believe that Burning Man has an opportunity to take a leadership role in how we’re going to do this for the future,” Rabin added.
Portable Electric has 23 employees and is growing quickly. The startup is headquartered in Vancouver, however it is working with the State of Washington to relocate manufacturing facilities and offices to Seattle. Since launching in 2015, Portable Electric has bootstrapped and relied on revenue to fund the business. Now the company is raising a $7 million round to fund its broader expansion goals.
Beyond Burning Man and other festivals, Portable Electric has a number of film industry customers including Amazon Studios, Netflix, and Warner Brothers.
There are other companies, like Renogy, providing off-grid solar systems but they are typically used by individuals and small groups. Rabin says Portable Electric has a “first-mover advantage” as a commercial option.
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