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Energy and Carbon Impact of Various Outdoor Events

As the summer approaches, people are once again anticipating the return of months full of outdoor events. And in a world that’s still emerging from the COVID fog, where events were cancelled and people were avoiding crowds even in outdoor venues, this upcoming season is set to see an exciting reemergence of these cherished events.

The universe of outdoor events spans a wide breadth and really has something for everyone:

  • Music festivals
  • Farmers markets and pop-up markets
  • Food truck rallies
  • Street fairs
  • Sports competitions
  • Block parties and picnics
  • Carnivals and special attraction fairs

There’s really no shortage of outdoor events to choose from, all of which allow you to spend an afternoon, night, or even weekend taking in arts and culture, gather with your community, and enjoy the outdoors. These events present the best opportunity to combine cultural events with the beauty of the great outdoors, with attendees taking in the sun, enjoying nature, and breathing fresh air.

These events are a great way to enjoy the great outdoors, but they also highlight the importance of doing so in a way that truly protects the environment. Traditionally, this approach means doing the very basics: not littering, picking up after yourself, ensuring you’re not putting on events on sensitive or vulnerable land, etc. But in today’s world, we’re all more cognizant of the environmental impacts of energy use and the resulting climate impacts of greenhouse gases. And because these outdoor events commonly require power consumption of some kind (sometimes a whole lot of it), evaluating their energy use profiles and the resultant carbon footprints has become a critical way to ensure the outdoor events are preserving these environments for others to enjoy now and in the future.

Energy Needs of Outdoor Music Festivals

As a starting point, academic and industry research have identified the energy requirements of some of the more common and more impactful events. Music festivals, specifically, are not only some of the largest and most popular outdoor events being put on today, but they are also continually growing at staggering rate: more events to choose from, more attendees, and longer lasting festivals. By 2024, outdoor music festivals are expected to have a user penetration of 4.4% and see revenues grow by 14% per year.

But these music festivals are predominantly run by generators operating with diesel fuel. Interestingly, though, generators used at these outdoor musical festivals are regularly running at a low capacity of 25% or less, sometimes never passing that threshold for the entire festival. These energy use patterns present an opportunity. Study finds that large events use about 0.13 gallons of diesel fuel per person per day for large festivals and 0.07 gallons per person per day for small/medium festivals. Across these various music festivals, the energy needs typically go 54% to lighting, 27% to video equipment, and 19% to audio equipment.

To illustrate those numbers with tangible examples, the largest music festival in the United States is Summerfest in Milwaukee with 800,000 attendees, which would thus use 105,669 gallons of diesel fuel use per day. The most well-known festival is probably Coachella, which sees 600,000 daily attendees that would thus require 79,252 gallons of diesel fuel. Even outdoor music festivals classified as small, such as the Newport Folk Festival, the diesel use for its 50,000 attendees is significant at 6,604 gallons per day.

Converting Energy Use to Carbon Impact

The fact these events are run predominantly on diesel fuel creates the biggest challenge for keeping them climate friendly. According to the U.S. Energy information Administration, the burning of one gallon of diesel fuel burned emits 10.19 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2). That means the previously mentioned events are emitting each day:

  • Summerfest: 1,077 metric tons of CO2
  • Coachella: 808 metric tons of CO2
  • Newport Folk: 67 metric tons of CO2

These numbers are so large and somewhat abstract that they can be difficult to grasp. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a calculation that puts it in context:

  • Summerfest’s CO2 emissions each day are the equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of 210 U.S. homes
  • Coachella’s daily emissions equate to the amount of carbon sequestered by 956 acres of U.S. forests for one year
  • The Newport Folk Festival is emitting each day the same amount of CO2 as 14 cars emit during the course of a year

Cleaning Up Those Events

These numbers are staggering and demonstrate that perhaps these music festivals have an inherent environmental problem. Back to the days of Woodstock and through today to Coachella, festival goers tend to have the perspective of wanting to preserve the environment and benefit the Earth, so it’s a bit of a contradiction that the events are responsible for so much greenhouse gas.

However, we can do better. The main reason that diesel generators are used at these outdoor events is because they’re often being hosted in the middle of green outdoor space (or even in a remote desert like Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada). These locations don’t have readily available electrification or outlets for which equipment can be plugged. Because of this limitation, diesel generators are instead set up, those generators are filled with diesel fuel, and they are run where and when they are needed.

For many years, these diesel fuels were the only solution but a key advancing technology has changed these previously held assumptions: batteries.

Batteries as a technology are not new, but for so long they suffered from being inefficient and expensive. Energy consumers who wanted any sort of large-scale power bank to draw from needed to utilize obtrusively large and heavy equipment. However, the past decade in the battery industry has been revolutionary, as highlighted by the recent boom of electric vehicles and home solar and energy storage systems. But these technologies aren’t done yet and the next decade will see batteries become even more compact, efficient, and affordable.

While the early applications of these larger batteries were stationary energy storage systems in homes and businesses, these recent advancements have allowed batteries to start to replicate and improve the key advantages of diesel generators: they are portable, modular, and deployable, as shown by the suite of Joule Case offerings. Armed with these capabilities, battery technologies can change the outdoor music festival industry.

Batteries are run by electricity, which in the United States averages about 0.386 kg of CO2 per kilowatthour generated. Using the approximation that 1 kWh of electricity requires a diesel generator to burn 1.1 gallons of fuel. So, a small festival like Newport Folk Festival that burns 6,604 gallons of diesel a day has a power consumption of 6,250 kWh per day. On the average U.S. grid, that would equate to 2.4 metric tons of CO2 emissions, less than 4% of the emissions compared with when that festival was run on diesel generators. Further, as the grid becomes more carbon free, these savings only increase. Even better, if these batteries are charged by solar installations or other renewable sources, they can bring emission reductions to 100%. These figures are only possible by leaving music festivals powered by diesel generators in the past, where they belong, and embracing the mobile battery revolution.

If we want to ensure these green spaces exist and that the climate change crisis doesn’t put a damper on the party, this switch is needed as soon as possible.

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