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Burning Man Becomes Latest Adversary in Geothermal Feud
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.”