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How to Build a Greener, Solar-Powered Music Festival

Destination Moon is trying to make music and art festivals more eco-friendly.

by DJ Pangburn
Jun 3 2014, 9:30am

Imagine, for a change, a festival that is truly eco-friendly, and not just cosmetically "green." How many manage to properly balance the hordes of revelers with ecological awareness? Ticket sales are obviously the overriding concern, not the environment. Enter Destination Moon, a New York City-based arts and music festival hoping to change the festival dialogue around ecological sustainability.

By the usual measures of music festival-dom, Destination Moon is young, small, and scrappy. Throughout the year, the team throws a variety of music and art parties to "keep folks tuned in." This is only their second year staging the festival at Hostelling International's secluded back garden area, but co-founder Walker Esner calls it the beta test for a bigger weekend-long, solar-powered festival that they plan to hold in upstate New York next year. 

As for the music itself, the team is bringing in six New York City indie rock bands, with another act soon to be announced. Among the most well-known are Porches and Plume Giant. The artist collective Oxheart will be curating Destination Moon's art. "They're pretty adamant about keeping the work that will be shown under wraps, as they prefer the element of surprise; but most of the work is large scale, site-specific interactive sculpture," Esner said. 

The decision to create Destination Moon came after years of frequenting big summer festivals, where the trio saw an incredible amount of waste and energy misuse. Esner said they're "big advocates" of festivals, so they began plotting their own, trying to reduce their carbon footprint in the process. 

"We use DC Solar Solutions' Model SCT20 portable solar generator," said Esner. "It's a honkin' 20 kilowatts, and it cost almost the same as renting standard gas or diesel generators. We don't have to blast music as loud (until we want to) to overpower generator motors, so it engages the audience, looks awesome and, hopefully, it instills the capabilities of solar to some degree."  

It's cost effective in the long term, and you can feel a little better about what you produce if you're not creating loads of waste.

Esner admits that the solar trailer is large, but it runs quiet and is great for powering outdoor music. "It's about 25 feet long and six feet tall," he said. "The panels fold out to give it about a 10-foot wing span." For Destination Moon, the solar generator is the most vital ingredient in keeping the festival sustainable. Esner suspects that larger festivals don't even consider it as an option. Instead, they use diesel generators. 

"Diesel generator emissions are damaging to the environment, and in the long term are partly responsible for rising fuel costs, not to mention they need to be running constantly to avoid damaging the engines," said Esner. "Last year, after 10 hours of powering our stage and about four hours of powering location and stage lighting, the solar trailer was only down to about 85 percent battery. Totally reliable, even on a cloudy day if we wanted to keep going." 

"We think it would be possible for bigger festivals to scale up, which is the plan for next summer," he added. "The power will be split up over a few solar generators to run two stages and lighting for an entire weekend."

Even so, Esner is unsure how much solar energy is needed to power bigger festivals. And it's possible that a portable generator with the necessary amp hours doesn't yet exist. "It could probably be doable if the event pulled power from a large-scale permanent solar array built to power a building or factory," said Esner, though he isn't sure about the logistics of this type of large-scale solar power setup.

As vital as the solar generator to Destination Moon, it's the little things that add up in Esner's estimation. The team is even particular with the dishes. All food serving materials, from cups and plates to utensils are reusable. Whether these reusable materials scale up for larger festivals is open to debate, but it's worth more a moment's consideration.

The artists are also in on the sustainable action, using all recycled materials for their live shows. Esner couldn't talk about what people will see at this summer's Destination Moon, but did say that at the group's last event, artist Macylyn Milsark used thousands of recycled white plastic bags, cut them into strips, and tied them into strands to create a live environment. Then video artist John Backstrom projection-mapped visuals onto the strands during the sets.  

At last year's festival, David Aronson exhibited "Power Biker," a carnival-style game that lets users ride a stationary bike and power lights up a vertical installation, sort of like a classic strongman mallet game. In "One Small Step," Hillary Livingston created an eco-conscious origami sculpture with recycled newspaper. Amelia Marzec's "New American Sweatshop" offered demonstrations on how to disassemble broken electronics, salvage important pieces, and build DIY projects with sensors, induction coils, motors, and solar heaters. And, rather hilariously, Mark Krawczuk cooked bacon on a Fresnel lens. 

"We're pretty serious about recycling paper, glass and plastic, and that's how we spend the day after the festival," said Esner. "We initially hooked up with Hostelling International because they are super eco-friendly. We put out labeled cans for glass, paper, and plastic, then sort through it to make sure everything is in the right spot, along with picking up any trash that's left behind. It sounds pretty minor, but just by setting up separate bins we've found that people pretty much follow suit." After sorting the waste, the festival adds their accumulated recyclables to Hostelling International's daily output. 

Anyone who has been to even one festival would notice the vast plastic landscape populated with cups and bottles. And if it were up to Esner, festivalgoers wouldn't be served drinks without handing servers their own reusable container. "That's a little tyrannical, but there's this awesome festival in Ithaca, New York called Grass Roots," he said. "They've got a pretty cool system implemented that we'd love to steal come next year. They sell a Grass Roots mug with the year on it, and the earlier the year on your cup the cheaper your drink is."

Esner believes that is just the right incentive needed for festivals. "I think the plan for when it comes to our upstate multi-day festival would be this: If you have your own cup, water is free and beers are half-off," he added. This raises the problem of water consumption at festivals, which Esner hasn't tackled yet. But, to get around the bottled water problem, Esner suggests people drink from water fountains throughout the Destination Moon venue, and do the same at other festivals that provide fountains.

Transportation is an important sustainability issue as well. To that end, the Destination Moon team is already scouting locations close to the Metro-North for next summer's multi-day festival. They've also been in touch with a few individuals who run vegetable oil-powered buses.

"The plan is to hire a few buses, make a couple pickup points in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and be able to shuttle people on Friday and return them on Sunday," he said, which is something that could be done at other festivals, among other eco-conscious transportation options, like ride-shares, which Destination Moon is considering implementing in exchange for discounted ticket prices. 

What Esner hopes to teach others, including bigger festivals, is that it is "forehead-slappingly easy" to produce an environmentally-friendly festival. "We're just three dudes who love cool events, and did a bit of research on solar energy," he said. "We're not electricians, or we weren't before this. Why haven't the Coachellas and Bonnaroos  thought to do this? It's cost-effective in the long term, and you can feel a little better about what you produce if you're not creating loads of waste."  

In the future, Esner hopes these bigger festivals adapt to a more eco-friendly model, finding novel ways of doing so in the process. Sponsors, he believes, can be instrumental in helping festivals pull it off, and by giving festivalgoers the the right incentive to jump aboard. In the end, as  Esner so aptly put it, people can party hard and have a great time in a sustainable environment. Party on. 

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