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PERSPECTIVES

Sustainable energy meets sustainable power plants


Senator Ted Kennedy famously blocked a wind farm off the Cape Cod coast because he didn’t want to look at it while he was sailing. Ted was an early supporter of sustainable energy—as long as the wind turbines were in someone else’s back yard. Just last year, a group of environmentalists, who also claim to be strong supporters of sustainable energy, convinced the Bureau of Land Management to abandon plans for an 850-megawatt, 9,200-acre solar panel farm in the Nevada desert. While locals gripe about traffic and noise, what they really object to is the ugly power plant. Just like Ted Kennedy, they simply don’t want to look at it. Now, a project coming out of Burning Man, which merges art, architecture and solar energy, just might lead the way to solving the “does good, looks bad” problem.

 

QUICK TAKES

  • At least 53 utility-scale wind-, solar-, and geothermal-energy projects were delayed or blocked between 2008 and 2021 in 28 US states. (sciencedirect.com)

  • In 2022, 46.1 gigawatts (GW) of new utility-scale electric generating capacity was expected to be added to the U.S. power grid, Almost half of the planned 2022 capacity additions are solar, followed by natural gas at 21% and wind at 17%. (US Energy Information Administration)

  • US utility-scale solar generating capacity was expected to grow by 21.5 GW in 2022. Most planned solar additions in 2022 will be in Texas (6.1 GW, or 28% of the national total), followed by California (4.0 GW). (US Energy Information Administration)

 

There’s no getting around it—power plants, whether for sustainable energy or fossil-fuel energy, are big. They sprawl across acres of land and block the view. The challenge for supporters of sustainable energy, then, is to find ways to minimize the environmental impact of the building, while also making the visual impact more palatable to those in the vicinity. Burning Man, an annual event on a 3,800-acre ranch in the Nevada desert, is on the forefront of this movement.


Burning Man promoters wanted to take the festival completely off grid. To do so, they held a contest for engineers, artists, architects, and anyone else who wanted to enter, to design an ecologically friendly power plant that would generate enough energy to power the festival and other events throughout the year. One of the most intriguing designs has come to be known as Solar Mountain. This design, which is projected to generate 318,645 kwh of power per year, incorporates a gigantic assortment of solar panels stretching down a gradient from a central spine. The engineers and architects behind the design claim this format is more efficient than standard flat panel designs and can generate more power with fewer panels in less space.


The designers also say that they took their inspiration from the surrounding landscape, which features geysers, wetlands, hot and cold springs, and more than 100 varieties of plants. The curves and angles of Solar Mountain were meant to mirror the undulating flow of the surrounding land, and thus complement their surroundings rather than clash with them.


Not only is Solar Mountain meant to blend in with its surroundings, it is meant to be an interactive feature and community center. If the project is completed, locals will be encouraged to make use of the plant for community events, rather than be blocked with fencing and barricades.


The structure, which is modular and scalable, will be manufactured using recycled wood and is designed using net-zero principles.