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SusTech Powers Creativity at Burning Man

Mobile Solar Power System Lights up lumenEssence Installation

solar powered art installation at burning man
photo by Mauricio Bustos

Even if members of the Sustainable Technologies staff weren’t at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada, during Labor Day week, the company definitely sent some positive energy to the massive annual gathering in the desert.

In particular, SusTech provided a four-panel Mobile Powerflex solar array with batteries and chargers to help artist and technologist Mauricio Bustos power his elaborate lumenEssence installation, an expansion of his thought-provoking seaGrass installation from the 2013 festival.

The installation was made up of 33 interactive and dynamic towers surrounding a central viewing platform that served as a housing area for festival-goers. Each tower was 30-feet tall, made of fiberglass designed to flex with the wind – much like seagrass blades waves with tides and currents – and illuminated by 50 full-color, high output LEDs.

The original seaGrass installation used LEDs, accelerometers and microphones to create interaction between people and the sculpture. Colors would emanate from a shake of the tower or a person’s voice. lumenEssence updated that idea, allowing people to climb into a central structure, where there were capacitive metal touch devices. Those were connected to the LEDs and changed their lighting patterns.

photo by Mauricio Bustos

This is where Sustainable Technologies’ contribution came into play. Simply put, lumenEssence needed power to work. In the middle of a desert, miles from any electrical infrastructure.

“We could’ve purchased a generator to charge the batteries and hauled in gas to provide the power, but that wasn’t a good option for us,” Bustos said. “The charging station was going to be where we had our camp set up, at a different location from the installation, so that’s where the generator would’ve been. It would’ve created more noise and exhaust fumes where we were living for two weeks.”

Instead, Mauricio worked with SusTech president and lead engineer Ernesto Montenero on a custom-designed, solar-powered system for the installation. The system included four 275-watt solar panels and two sets of lithium polymer batteries. Each set had enough capacity to power lumenEssence overnight. The batteries were swapped daily and recharged during the day.

photo by Mauricio Bustos

“The system Ernesto set up worked out perfectly,” Bustos said. “We never had an issue with capacity, and the batteries need a lot of capacity to charge in a short amount of time. At any given time, we were charging 12 batteries pulling 60 amps. A generator wouldn’t have been able to do that. We would’ve needed an additional battery back-up system to buffer it. But the four-panel 1kW system had no problem doing it. Once the system was set up, I was able to charge at will. We never stressed the batteries. Ernesto is very conservative in designing a system with a factor of safety.”

The other challenge with the system was to ensure that Bustos’ creation remained modular and scalable. “I wanted each tower to be independently powered so that if we need to set up in a tight space, we could use fewer towers, or if one broke for some reason, we could just take it down without affecting the project.”

lumenEssence was set up with each tower mounted around the central platform, with it’s own battery. The platform held the electronics used to coordinate the light pattern shown on the towers, plus the accompanying music. All the electronics were powered by a separate SusTech-provided two-panel, Mobile Powerflex 250W system located at the installation.

Because lumenEssence was an honorarium project, funded in part by a grant from Burning Man, Bustos and his crew were required to have the installation built and operating by the time the actual festival opened. In all, Bustos’ crew was on location for 15 days.

photo by Mauricio Bustos

“We got there after the big rains, though it did rain one of the days we were there,” he said. “We had absolutely no problem with the charging system. And because we had the panels set up in an area protected from wind, we had no issues there either. Best of all, Ernesto designed the system to be as plug and play as possible. Everything was very easy to set up, and the system self-started as soon as there was enough sunlight to power it up. It was the second year we rented from SusTech, and it’s only gotten better.”

photo by Mauricio Bustos


Mobile Powerflex 1000

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  • 120v power source
  • 1000W pure sine wave inverter
  • 95A charge controller
  • Mobile Powerflex 250

  • 2-125w, 12 volt solar panels
  • 1-12v 165 Ahr battery
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