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PROJECTS BLOG 07/26/2023

Actually, You Can — Lessons from 3 Years of Hauling with Electric Vehicles for Burning Man

Soundtrack: Scarcity Is Manufactured, from Deerhoof’s 2021 album “Actually, You Can”

Looking to cut your carbon emissions for Burning Man this year? Here’s some great news — electric vehicles are capable, today, of hauling big art projects and heavy camp infrastructure to Black Rock City.

Swing Shift Studio, the people behind 2022’s Alien Drive Thru and 2019’s Awful’s Gas & Snack, used EVs to haul a significant percentage of our people and gear to the Playa. As the chief instigator of this effort, I’ve logged over 100 hours of driving back and forth from the Black Rock Desert in a variety of EVs, making every mistake there is to make.

I’ve been stranded, I’ve had to beg, borrow and steal for electricity, I’ve had to limp an electric pickup down the 447 at 35 miles an hour in the middle of the night, I’ve melted batteries and overheated diesel generators, and now I’m here to help make your life easier.

In 2019, Burning Man set a goal of “carbon negativity” by 2030, but the published plan mostly doesn’t mention Burning Man’s biggest source of carbon emissions — vehicles driven to and from the event.

Not everyone can drive an EV to Burning Man, but I’m publishing this guide because I believe that if you can, then you should. The more of us who do it, the easier we’ll make it for everyone who comes after us. Here’s what you need to know:


Yes, you can tow a big project with an EV

Range and infrastructure are still an issue, but you can work around it

Your EV will shed range in the desert heat

Charging on Playa

Doing it right

Doing it wrong

What to do when you’re completely out of luck

Future considerations

We need more infrastructure

We can use EVs to support going solar

But wait, are EVs really “green”? What about lifecycle emissions from manufacturing? What about mining rare earth minerals for batteries?


Yes, you can tow a big project with an EV

In 2019, we towed the burnable portion of Awful’s Gas & Snack, about 5,000 pounds, in an electric SUV from Oakland to Reno. In 2022, using an electric pickup truck we named Electric Horse, we towed Alien Drive-Thru and several other projects, totaling about 10,000 pounds, from San Francisco all the way to Black Rock City. We then turned around and shuttled another 7,000 pound trailer from Reno to BRC – in total, projects and gear for 5 different groups.

Electric SUV (unnamed) in the GSR parking lot, 2019

Electric Horse at the top of Donner Pass, 2022

Bottom line: it works. EVs perform beautifully as towing vehicles. You don’t need to worry about performance or towing capability, not even over the mountains.

However, you can’t take refueling for granted the way you can with a gas-powered car.

Range and infrastructure are still an issue, but you can work around it

In 2023, there are enough public EV charging stations to support a drive on most major interstate highways to Reno in a modern electric vehicle with at least 250 miles of range. If you’re coming from California, there are enough to get you there even if you’re towing a fully-loaded trailer over the Sierra Nevadas, and your range is cut in half.

Where it gets tricky is the last 100 miles, from the closest EV charging station to Black Rock City in Fernley, NV.

Fernley: It’s Where Dreams Are Made Of

If you’re driving an EV to Black Rock City, and especially if you’re hauling, you will be spending significant time in Fernley. 

There are 4 chargers for non-Tesla EVs, and as of late 2022, a Tesla supercharger with a dozen terminals. At a minimum, you will need to stop here and charge your car to 100% before the last leg of the journey.

If you’re just taking passengers, and you’re careful about range loss while your car is idle, this may be all you need to do. If you’re hauling with an EV, however, there are additional considerations.

An EV loaded to its full towing capacity will lose about 50% of its range, which makes the last 100-mile stretch a serious challenge. Let’s say you have a 300-mile battery pack, and you’re towing a fully-loaded trailer, like we did for Alien Drive-Thru in 2022. This reduces your range to 150 miles. That means you’ll be left with 50 miles of range once you reach the Playa — not enough to get home.

This is the point where the less intrepid among us would give up, and conclude that EVs just aren’t up to the task. Luckily, your narrator is an absolute galloping moron, and I wasn’t about to let trifling matters like “physics” or “math” prevent me from achieving my dream of towing big art with an EV.

I can confirm that you absolutely can overcome this issue, but it takes either careful advanced planning (which I didn’t do!), or some very clever (and often very ill-advised!) driving tricks.

First, we’ll cover the planning that applies to all EV trips to BRC, and then what to do when all else fails.

Your EV will shed range in the desert heat

EVs use battery power to do things like keeping the battery system from overheating, running the security system, keeping the cabin temperature under the boiling point, etc. These automatic systems will work extra hard under the hot desert sun, and you will lose more range than you expect.

Let’s say you arrive on Playa with enough range on your battery to get you home at the end of the event. If you’re not careful, you can lose enough battery range just while the car is sitting there unused to make your return trip very difficult.

If you’re planning on parking an EV at Burning Man for a week or more, you should consult your car’s manual, internet forums, and YouTube videos on how to disable as many of these battery-draining systems as possible, and also consider ways to either keep your car in the shade, or cover it in a reflective material to keep it cool in the heat of the day.

But that may not be enough — you may need to tend or partially re-charge your battery over the course of the week, and this also requires careful planning.

Charging on Playa

Doing it right

If you will need to recharge your car at Burning Man, you should plan to do so at a slow and consistent rate, over the course of several days, and you should plan ahead to make sure you have the right equipment.

First, let’s assume we’re doing everything we can to cut out carbon emissions completely, and not charging from a generator. 

Since 2019, our camp infrastructure and art projects have run entirely on solar and batteries (having several qualified electricians in your camp comes in handy: our 2019 solar writeup is here, 2022 solar system writeup is here). However, you can’t just plug an EV into any solar system and expect it to work. To charge an EV reliably from an off-grid solar and battery setup, you will need:

  • Enough inverter capacity to power your charger
  • Some means of properly grounding your inverter
  • A solid understanding of the maximum discharge rate of your battery system
  • Maybe a pure sine wave inverter?*

First, you will need a powerful enough inverter. Most EV chargers draw a minimum of 8 amps at 120 volts, for a total of about 1000 Watts (or 1kW). If your generator can’t provide at least this much power continuously, it won’t work.

Also, most EV wall chargers are picky about the power source they’re plugged into. If your inverter isn’t properly grounded, your car may not be able to charge from it.

This happened to me in 2022 — my home charger refused to turn on when I plugged it into the cheap inverter we used for camp power, but did work when plugged in to our more substantial, UL-listed, properly-grounded inverter we used for our art project power.

Then, assuming your inverter is a suitable power source for your car’s wall charger, the safest thing to do is to set the amp draw on your car’s charging settings as low as it can go, and trickle-charge your car over the course of several days.

Why? Because regardless of your inverter’s capacity, your power system battery (or the wires connected to it) may not be capable of anything but a low rate of discharge over a long period, and overdoing it can melt your power system. I learned this the hard way:


This is important! Almost all solar systems run power to a battery before going to the inverter. Even if the sun is shining, your power is usually still coming from the battery, so make sure your battery can handle the load you’re putting on it.

Finally, EV batteries are big, and even with relatively large off-grid solar systems for Burning Man, recharging your battery will take a long time. For planning purposes, it’s good to get a sense of the scale.

Let’s assume you have 1kW of solar (about 3-4 big panels). My camp’s formula assumes 80% capacity and 8 hours of sun per day, yielding 6.4 kWh of power per day (other people will argue about this and use different numbers, and that’s fine). A good conservative estimate to use for EV mileage is 3 mi/kWh for a passenger vehicle, 2 for a truck, and 1 for a truck with a trailer. (You can find more data on this here)

That means if you’re starting from an empty battery and a 1kW solar system, using conservative estimates with lots of padding, that’s over 5 days of charging a passenger EV to get enough range to get from the Playa to the nearest charger, and more if you’re hauling a lot of gear.

You probably won’t be starting from 0 if you charged to full in Fernley, and you will probably get better mileage than what I’ve listed here (especially if you apply the list of driving tricks below), but depending on your situation, you may need to plan for a bigger solar system. Or, you may have to resort to Plan B:

* There is some controversy on the Internet about whether or not you need a pure sine wave inverter to run an EV wall charger. Physics says no, people on various forums say yes. Your mileage may vary.

Doing it wrong

When you absolutely have to charge your car to leave the Playa, sometimes, you’re just going to have to plug it into a generator.

This is me in 2022, Doing It Wrong. This is Bad, and I felt Bad.

This is not ideal! But it isn’t quite as bad as you might think, for 2 reasons:

1. In most real world conditions, powering an EV with electricity generated by burning gas still uses less gas than if you burned it to power a car engine.

The big diesel generators used by the org to provide power for Black Rock City consume about 0.08 gallons per kWh produced. Our EV pickup got about 3 mi/kWh, but let’s use 2 mi/kWh as I mentioned earlier. That comes out to about 25 mpg. The most fuel efficient full-size truck you can buy in 2023 gets about 21 mpg, and the average for 2021 model year trucks was 19.3 mpg.

The most fuel-efficient gas powered car you can buy in 2023 tops out at around 55 mpg in ideal conditions. The average for 2021 model year cars was 30.98. If you charge most current-model-year electric passenger vehicles entirely from a diesel generator, using the conservative mileage estimate above, you get the equivalent of 37.5 mpg.

Sorry haters, this is actually good for the environment

So, if you recall one infamous sight from 2019, an electric SUV (not ours) charging from a diesel generator: assuming that generator was used to re-charge that car’s battery just once, to get it off the Playa, it still generated significantly less CO2 emissions than the average Prius making the same trip. Even better if it towed that generator to the Playa.

2. In some cases, plugging in an EV to a diesel generator is better than not doing that.

Running a big diesel generator for too long at too low of a percentage of its capacity can cause a mechanical issue known as “Wet Stacking”. To avoid this problem, operators sometimes need to increase the load on the generator, whether that load is actually being used or not. One example from Burning Man: a group of people sharing power from a diesel generator were asked to turn on air conditioners in trailers, whether or not they were in use, in order to put enough load on the generator to keep it running efficiently.

As long as we’re going to continue using diesel generators, it makes sense for this sometimes-necessary additional load to come from charging batteries, whether those batteries are in EVs or stationary. Charging batteries from a generator enables the generator to run at peak efficiency whenever it’s needed, and if the battery (or the EV, if it supports bi-directional charging) can be connected to the same electrical load, the generator can be turned off entirely when the batteries are full.

What to do when you’re completely out of luck

It’s 4 a.m. I just left BRC, and I’m driving to meet with some members of Heeby Jeeby Healers at 6 a.m. to pick up their food and water trailer in the Electric Horse. We were supposed to have access to a charging station near Gerlach, but we arrived too late to use it. The range estimator says I have 65 miles. It’s another 90 miles to Fernley.

It’s 10 p.m. I just finished ratchet-strapping my trailer in the middle of a dust storm, in the dark, in 90 degree heat. It’s Tuesday. I have work in the morning. I melted one of our camp batteries trying to eke out a few more miles of range. The range estimator says I have 65 miles. It’s 90 miles to Fernley.

Fortunately for you, dear reader, I am happy to make the same mistake multiple times. For the greater good. For science.

Here’s what to do when there’s no way to charge your battery, you don’t have enough range to get to a charger, and you absolutely have to get off the Playa. All of these methods really do add miles to your range.

1. Conservation mode

Some cars have a specific set of settings you can turn on that will increase your mileage — turning off a motor, reducing acceleration, lowering the car closer to the ground, etc. You can also do this manually by turning off the AC, radio, screens, and other unnecessary features.

2. Drop Weight

Maybe you’re towing a trailer, and you don’t have enough range to get it all the way to the closest charger. Depending on the circumstances, it may make sense to drop the trailer somewhere along the route, and make a round-trip from the charger back to the trailer, with enough range to get you to another charge.

3. Limp it

One thing I learned in 2022 is that EV energy consumption is not linear — an EV traveling at 35 mph will go further overall on the same amount of battery power as a car traveling at 70 mph, especially if you put it in cruise control.

Should you drive 35 in a 70? Probably not in the daylight! But this will work in a pinch.

4. Creative regenerative braking

Part of the 447 has some significant hills, and if you ride those hills just right, by setting regenerative braking to high, you can keep your net energy use at 0, or even put miles back on the battery.

In another wacky EV adventure, I drove over Sonora Pass in an EV, and by the time we got to the top, the range estimator said we had 11 miles left. By coasting to the bottom, we put about 20 miles back on the battery, enough to get us to the closest charger with ease (although just for me — my passengers were scared to death).

5. Pray

Another fun fact I learned in 2022 is that many range estimators are very conservative. A flashing red warning saying “0 MILES” may actually mean, “We don’t want you to die, so there’s a little extra in the tank.”

Maybe don’t count on this, but as the saying goes, the Playa Provides.

Future considerations

We need more infrastructure

The simple fact is that until there’s more charging infrastructure, only the intrepid (or the merely stupid) will attempt hauling in an EV.

Gerlach and Nixon both have the necessary infrastructure to support Level 2 EV charging, but there is currently none publicly available. If you’re a resident of either town, and you have enough power going to your house to run a welder or a dryer, you can probably make a few bucks renting your outlet to EV drivers.

Level 3 chargers, which can charge an EV in about 30 minutes, would be a much bigger lift, both in terms of infrastructure and funding. Money is available for this via the Inflation Reduction Act, but I don’t know at the time of writing whether Gerlach or Nixon applied for this funding, or if they will receive any.

In my opinion, Burning Man should consider supplying some EV infrastructure, at least to the same extent that they provide fossil fuel infrastructure via Hell Station. Especially if there is already headroom for EV charging with the existing infrastructure — for the reasons mentioned above, charging EVs can potentially benefit the generators used to provide power for the city’s infrastructure.

Finally, individual Burners should consider offering EV charging if their power system can support it. If you have a full battery during Exodus (or a generator full of fuel, although I’d rather you didn’t), you might as well unload it into someone’s car.

We can use EVs to support going solar

Batteries are expensive. So are electric cars. And if you already have an electric car, and it’s just sitting there during the event, you’ve got a big, expensive battery that’s doing nothing.

Our camp’s power system, which ran our lights, a refrigerator, and a few other things, had a total capacity of maybe 2kWh. In contrast, the Electric Horse had a 135kWh battery pack. Had we been able to connect that car’s battery to our solar system, we could have kept the car charged and kept our camp powered.

For the reasons mentioned earlier, connecting a car to an off-grid solar system is not totally straightforward, and not every car is equipped to be used as a backup battery. But Burners have been innovating in off-grid solar systems, and all kinds of other portable sustainability solutions, for decades. And the work we do here will have ripple effects elsewhere.

This is especially important when it comes to replacing Black Rock City’s power grid with solar. Such a system will need to have batteries somewhere, and if people are going to drive giant batteries to the Playa, we might as well use them to keep the power on when the sun goes down.

Aren’t Electric Cars Expensive?

Yes, they are! That’s why we borrowed ours. I traded yard work for use of the SUV in 2019, and Electric Horse was also a rental, paid for by reaching out to other camps and projects who needed towing, and pooling our resources. Box trucks and diesel pickups are also expensive. It all comes down to your priorities.

But wait, are EVs really “green”? What about life cycle emissions from manufacturing? What about mining rare earth minerals for batteries?

This is outside the scope of this article, but even when you factor in life cyle emissions, even in the worst case, EVs reduce carbon emissions, and those reductions will increase over time, because the electric grid is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, especially in Nevada.

That doesn’t address the issues surrounding the environmental impact of mining for minerals like lithium, or that mining’s effect on the sovereignty and well-being of indigenous people. These issues, which are present to a far greater extent in the fossil fuel extraction industry, are urgent and need to be addressed. In any case, the status quo is not an option.

Furthermore: Climate change is real and urgent. Continuing to burn fossil fuels is not an option, and we are out of time. If you have complaints about the environmental impact of EVs, but you are still willing to drive a gas-burning vehicle to Burning Man, you are not seriously engaging with the problem.


Some time in the middle of build week in 2022, I was totally exhausted, watching the sun go down, listening to the sound of the inverter connected to a Level 2 charger near Gerlach crapping out and re-starting, over and over again, as soon as the charge rate on the Electric Horse hit a measly 6 kW. And even if it had been working, the backup battery attached to the charger wouldn’t be enough to get me the charge I needed to get to Fernley. I felt defeated, and desperately in need of sleep.

The volunteer who graciously let me in the front gate (whose name I forgot, sorry) had some sage advice.

“Have you ever had an easy Burn?” he asked. “And, would you even want one?”

Of course not. If I wanted something easy I would just go camp next to a lake for Labor Day.

And anyway, sure, hauling big art to the Playa in an EV was a pain in the ass in 2022. But as the saying goes — it was better next year.


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