One of the darkest towns in America lies roughly 100 miles north of Reno, where the lights are few and rarely lit until one week each summer when pyrotechnics and LEDs set the sky and mountains aglow.
In tiny Gerlach, just outside the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, residents have watched the Burning Man festival grow over the last 30 years to a spectacle of nearly 80,000 countercultural hippies and tech billionaires, offering an economic lifeline for the unincorporated town. Now, Burning Man and Gerlach are more tightly aligned, joining conservationists and a Native American tribe in an alliance against a powerful adversary: Ormat Technology, the largest geothermal power company in the country.
Both Burning Man and Ormat share a vision for a greener future, yet neither can agree on the road to get there.
The festival promotes self-reliance and leaving no trace of its ephemeral metropolis, yet it contributes an enormous carbon footprint; the power company is vested in the future by battling climate change, but its clean energy facilities pose a threat to local habitats while reaping a sizable profit.
The dilemma has complicated similar projects worldwide, underscoring the tension between the need to combat climate change and the cost of doing so using clean power. In the effort for a sustainable future, what compromises must be made?
Experts say the answer comes down to the No. 1 rule in real estate: location, location, location.
“Devil’s in the details with the exact spot,” said Shaaron Netherton, the executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness. The organization has joined in a lawsuit to block Ormat’s project, which would explore potential geothermal resources in Gerlach.
Several Ormat initiatives have stalled or been forced to relocate amid concerns about potential threats to endangered species like the bleached sandhill skipper, a rare butterfly; populations of sage-grouse; the steamboat buckwheat; and, most recently, the Dixie Valley toad.
Opponents of Ormat’s project plans in Dixie Valley, Nev., fear it would drain the surface springs and push the tiny toad toward extinction. “Geothermal energy has a dark, dirty little secret: They dry up hot springs every time,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Yet other plants, such as Ormat’s Tsuchiyu Onsen plant in Fukushima, Japan, coexist with neighboring hot springs, inspiring the Japanese to reconsider the potential of geothermal energy, which creates electricity using fluids from underground.
Ormat said in a statement that it recognized the value of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. “Sustaining its resources is not only important to residents but also to our long-term success,” the company said.
Nevada’s geothermal resources have become a controversial topic. The state, known as the “golden child of geothermal,” contributes 24 percent of the country’s geothermal power, the highest after California, and produces nearly 10 percent of its electricity using the earth’s heat.
Ormat has 15 plants in Nevada, which together contribute 433 megawatts to the state’s electrical grid — enough to power 325,000 homes. Geothermal environments, including hot springs, geysers and steam vents found along the “Ring of Fire,” the tectonic pathway encircling the Pacific Ocean, are home to a wide range of biodiverse ecosystems. They can also serve as sacred sites for Indigenous tribes and supply spring water to rural towns like Gerlach.
Loss of drinking water is one of the many concerns Gerlach residents have over Ormat’s proposed project. Another is subsidence, the gradual sinking of land already occurring in certain parts of town.
“They build the plant on the aquifer Gerlach is sitting on, Gerlach will sink,” said Will Roger, who, along with his partner, Crimson Rose, are founders of Burning Man and have lived in Gerlach for 10 years. “That means the foundations of our houses will break and we’ll get condemned.”
Ormat worked to ensure there would be “no significant environmental or economic losses generated by exploration or development” of the site, the company said in its statement. “Geothermal development can bring numerous benefits to communities, especially in rural towns like Gerlach.”
The aquifer also houses the Great Boiling Springs, studied by the likes of NASA for its rare microbial similarities to conditions on Earth billions of years ago. Locals fear the plant would irreversibly affect the spring by mixing geothermal fluids with groundwater.
These are “geological uncertainties,” said Roland N. Horne, a professor of earth sciences at Stanford University. He explained that older steam plants have dried up hot springs, but most Ormat plants, including the one proposed in Gerlach, run on binary technology in which geothermal water never leaves the ground. Binary power plants create energy through a heat exchanger “with no emissions whatsoever of geothermal fluid or gases,” he said.
Still, binary plants are not foolproof. At Ormat’s nearby Jersey Valley plant, springs dried after operating for a few years. Ormat claims there is no proof the drought was caused by the plant, attributing it instead to a poorly plugged mining core hole.
Complicating matters in Gerlach, the plant would infringe on springs culturally significant to the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe. Randi Lone Eagle, the tribe’s chairwoman, said the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately consult them before greenlighting the project. “Tribes want to be notified way ahead of that process because a lot of the time, we’re coming to the table when the project is already done,” she said.
The plant’s critics say the town’s 130 residents could also be subject to light, noise and pollution, with desert views and historic emigrant trails sullied by the presence of an industrial plant a hundred feet away. These risks were not weighed when the Bureau of Land Management found “no significant impact” in its environmental assessment of the exploration project.
“It’s kind of a NIMBY thing, but so much more,” said Mr. Roger, the Burning Man co-founder, whose two-acre home has 50 trees, a labyrinth, chickens and an aquaponics system that harvests tilapia and fertilizes their greenhouse. “ It’s not just ‘not in my backyard,’ but don’t ruin my backyard.”
Last month, local authorities rescinded a permit for Ormat to “temporarily explore whether a commercially viable geothermal resource exists” in Gerlach, Ormat said in its statement, cuing up what is likely to be a long conflict.
Burning Man organizers say when it comes to their social principles, they practice what they preach. Sustainability projects funded by the Burning Man Project, the nonprofit entity that runs the festival, are sprouting around town. The organization claims that it “owns more than half of the commercial property in Gerlach,” advancing its goal to build a permanent community.
As part of an effort to cut the festival’s annual carbon footprint of 100,000 tons by 2030, the Burning Man Project has outlined green initiatives like supplying more “solar installations for artwork and campers” and “having serious conversations” about what art to burn, Ms. Rose said.
But it’s an ambitious goal. About 90 percent of Burning Man’s emissions are caused by cars, RVs and planes hauling thousands of attendees to the remote desert.
Mr. Roger said he hoped greener grids will beckon more electric vehicles to the festival. Unfortunately, electric cars require lithium-ion batteries mined from plants like the one Fuse Battery plans to build outside of Gerlach and will probably receive similar pushback.
He added that he had no plans to scale down the festival to offset its carbon footprint.
“Burning Man changes lives, so if we can wake people up there, to me all that is worth it,” he said. “I don’t want to lower the number; I’d like to raise it.”