Solar at Shakori Hills: does it make sense?

We had the pleasure of making it out to the Shakori Hill Festival today to let the kids participate in various events such as the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and to listen to a bit of good music.

The organizers had a booth there, asking for contributions towards a solar electic system that would power the event in the future. The card indicates that 10,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity are used to put on the event. I applaud their goal to get off the grid. But the sea of cars I saw in the parking lot left me wondering: how much energy was used in just getting people to/from the event, in comparison to the 10,000 kWh goal?
Here’s my attempt to figure it out. When we were there on Sunday, there were perhaps 700-900 cars around. We can estimate from that a total of about 5,000 cars were driven to/from the event during the course of the four days (that’s an average of 1,125 cars/day, or 2,250 people per day if it averaged 2 people per car, probably a low estimate). The location is 17 miles from Carrboro, 40 mi from Raleigh, 35 mi from Durham, and 10 mi from Pittsboro. So we’ll average all of those at 25 mi (each way), for an average round trip of 50 miles. The fleet average for the US automobiles as of 2003 was 25 miles per gallon, so on average, 2 gallons of gasoline were burned per car trip to/from the festival. If our estimate of 5,000 car trips is accurate (maybe an underestimate?), that’s 10,000 gallons of gasoline burned up (526 barrels of oil).
Now, hold onto your seats. Each gallon of gasoline contains about 37 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy. So, we have 10,000 * 37 = 370,000 kWh of energy burnt up to get people to/from the festival in their cars/SUV’s/trucks/motor homes.
That is, 37 times more energy were used to transport people to/from Shakori Hills, than would be saved if the festival organizers reach their goal of going all solar.
Here’s another way to look at it. An efficient generator will extract about 7 kWh of energy out of a gallon of gas (no, they are not very efficient, they only recover a small part of the 37 kWh contained in a gallon). So, to generate the 10,000 kWh of energy that the festival needs to run, that is about 1,429 gallons of gas, if they were to use local generators. Compare that 1,429 to our estimate of 10,000 gallons burned up getting people to and from. I.e., even using inefficient gas generators, generating all that power to run the festival would only take 1/7th the power that is consumed to get all those people to/from the event. 1/7th. That is sobering. (and note: even if everyone drove a super efficient hybrid like the Prius out there, and averaged 50mpg, it would still consume more than 3x more energy to transport people there).
And this is why all the peak oil people are so concerned about our future. They realize how much energy we are just burning up driving around in our gasoline burning cars. But most people don’t think about that. Even very “green” people just don’t realize how much energy is contained in each and every gallon of gas put into their cars. And, while I applaud the goal of Biodiesel, I had a look at the Piedmont biofuels website to see how much they produce. They produce “thousands of gallons per day” – so, basically, if every person going to the festival used biodiesel instead of fossil fuel, there would be none left in this area for any other purpose (such as powering tractors that help grow our food).
I don’t want to come off as overly critical of these efforts. Every small bit helps. But if people think these are solutions to fossil fuel dependency, they are clearly not. They are drops-in-the-bucket.
Anyway, I think if the Shakori Hills organizers can get the solar panels, it will save energy and have a positive effect – not only by the direct power saved, but by the example set. At the same time, they could have a vastly greater effect on energy usage for the festival (and also local pollution/noise/danger created by the cars) by implementing a bus system to/from the event. Or getting people to go out there on their electric bikes 🙂

2 thoughts

  1. A donation is a donation I suppose. Dressing it up in solar clothing sounds better than “got any spare change”. I’m assuming they’re going to power the farm year-round with it – not just the festival, which would effect your numbers. I guess they didn’t want to point that out too much to would-be donators though.

    There was a shuttle to the event though. Limited runs, but it existed. Getting people onto it is the real challenge.

    Just continue setting the example and try not to come off as tooooo angry 😉

  2. I have since talked to the organizers, and it is clear they will use this year round, which would make it have a much greater positive impact over the long haul than my calculations showed. My response was to the little postcard I got as part of their advertising campaign, which focused on off setting power use during the festival. If that is the sole reason, then the solar doesn’t make as much sense. But for year round off-grid powering of the farm, it does make sense, though it would be nice if the advertising were more clear about that intent. Anyway, I plan to make a small contribution towards the effort, since the organizers are clearly cognizant of these issues.

    Hopefully I didn’t come off as angry – my response was not anger, just frustration at how reliant everyone is on cars – and how hard it is to change that (speaking as someone formerly very reliant on cars to get around).

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