Festivals fuel bills

Festivals and interesting contradictions go hand in hand, in fact, this may be critical to their fundamental appeal. One of their most compelling contradictions, for me, has been the endless dilemma between their undeniable environmental impact and the effect of the ‘green-tinted glasses’ through which it often seems tempting to view them.

Rock N Heim Camping – pixabay

For an increasingly urban population, muddy boots, tents and campfires take on an otherworldly appeal. We romanticize the natural world, whilst still somehow managing to leave it covered in beer cans. This echoes the wider dilemma facing most of the developed world. Can we still have a good time, keep all our technologies, luxuries and holidays without destroying the planet? Are festivals and the ‘festivalisation’ of wider culture a positive trend towards live experience, social harmony and participation; or is It too a product of commoditisation, spreading alienation and pacification?

The early pop music festivals have a clear place in counter-cultural legend, yet winding the clock forward only a few decades forward finds a booming festival market, arguably the very epitome of late capitalism with its glamping, sponsorship, media broadcasts and elite ‘buy in’ that ranges from tourism departments, political figures and all the way to visits from the royal family.

The music industry has convulsed in recent decades, for various reasons, particularly regarding the changing significance of live performance. Live performance (at least for A-listers) can be lucrative compared to recorded sales, with the experience maintaining a cool cache as a bastion against the creeping omnipresence of mediatized, digital culture and ‘the fear of missing out’.

It is too harsh, not to mention simplistic, to claim music festivals no longer have any capacity to generate deep social, cultural or political meaning, but simultaneously, it is clear enough that many festivals and their audiences are apparently happy with mainstream legitimacy.

In terms of ethos, perhaps many festivals aren’t as ‘green’ as they once were, but their hard environmental impacts are certainly better understood and managed. Our understanding of environmental impact in terms of measurement, management and control has vastly increased and professionalized.  Music festivals, have at the very least, listened to the concerns of their consumer base and stepped up their efforts if only to protect their market share, meet licensing obligations and reduce their own basic costs. Of course, some festivals do much more than others, to their credit and thankfully this work is increasingly being is shared, learned from and recorded.

This post draws from elements of my own research that addresses the issue of environmental impact at festivals. It’s not the sole area in which I work (hence the social and cultural waffling) but there seemed to be enough of my own notes, reports and data lying around unpublished that I could work up into something useful.

Finally, the work of festivals managing their environmental impact, of course extends far beyond just energy – more importantly into transport, waste and water management, but you’ll have to go to other sources to learn more about these for now. I had originally planned to write more but got distracted and frankly, on reflection, you’d probably be better off reading Sustainable Event Management or the various bits by Powerful Thinking. Hopefully you find this deep dive into fuel, generators and energy consumption useful.

Introducing the festivals

The two festivals I and other researchers have worked most closely on the issue of emissions have been Latitude and Shambala. Both festivals participate in the Julies Bicycle scheme, and both have made these reports/data available at various points.

The figures quoted are amalgamations of reports and other data sources covering multiple years from approximately 2009-2014 which is sufficient to compare the two and identify general trends. For the purposes of simplicity figures have been rounded.

The reader should also be aware that festivals are particularly susceptible to good years and bad years, whether regarding the weather, attendance, headliner availability or the successful operation of any new energy-related initiative or technology. Certainly it is less precise, but arguably more representative to amalgamate numerous years together in this way and talk about general observations rather than get lost in the minutae from year to year. Fuzzy accuracy not false precision!

Festival Maximum Capacity Person-Days[1] Ticket price Usual dates Location Size[2]
Shambala 8,000-11,000 30,000-50,000 £119-£145 3rd weekend of August Northamptonshire Medium
Latitude 27,000-35,000 80,000-100,000 £175-£192 3rd weekend of July Suffolk Large

A quick note about festival research in general. Myself and other teaching colleagues noticed a small increase in the number of students picking environmental issues as a topic or specialisation within undergraduate and especially postgraduate courses. I suggest there are three reasons for this:

  • It’s a relatively new area of investigation so there is a novelty factor and genuine research value within the new data.
  • The younger generations are perhaps more aware, or at least have more at stake from wider environmental issues
  • There is simply more easily accessible data out there to research and build an argument around.

Of all these, I think the last is particularly worth considering by festival organisers. The cultural sector as a whole, naturally shies away from that which can be quantified, possibly in the same way a practising artist shies away from doing their yearly accounts.

Hopefully, the increasing body of literature on environmental impact can demonstrate the benefits that when organisers and researchers collaborate to not only do the necessary data collection and analysis, but also to make this available to others. Even remaining in the instrumental, quantifiable space, there are potentially many more issues that could be better addressed in this way across the economic and social dimensions of festivals.

Generators and festivals

“They gave you butterflies at the time because they were really anarchy oriented. Whatever vibe each party took, it was definitely going there and there was nothing you could do to stop it…And sometimes that was really jubilant, and other times that was like ‘someone just shit on the windshield of my car.’ That actually happened.” – Josh Homme, Alarm Magazine, 06/26/2007

The above quote from musician Josh Homme refers to ‘generator parties’ that were associated with bands from the South California based Palm Desert Scene[3]. As the name suggests, the parties involved night-time excursions, deep into the surrounding desert with generators providing the power for the heavy music. The desolate landscape and perhaps also, the droning noise of the generators are assumed to have influenced the necessarily heavy music.

(Or some live footage of Kyuss, if you like)

30 odd years onwards from Bill Hanley’s groundbreaking work in live sound engineering at the original Woodstock, the costs, quality and reliability of technology associated with live sound have become such that just a handful of musicians, performing for free can now spontaneously create a micro-festival in any suitably abandoned part of the world.

That the humble generator can now be somewhat associated with an entire musical subgenre underlines its importance and that of all temporary infrastructure to festivals as a whole. Additionally we can see the core motivation to continually break new ground, explore and find new, preferably cheap if not free sites or venues in which to perform. Burning Man in particular has spawned a number of other wilderness-based festivals, though whether it can be said to be as ‘zero-infrastructure’ as it once was is obviously up for debate.

Greenfield festivals, like many outdoor events, rely on generators for electricity. Some may have mains grid access, either fully or in part (see Oya festival in Norway, grid powered by hydroelectricity). Even festivals in urban environments may find the local supply boxes are not of suitable capacity, reliability or in the right physical locations. Of course all electricity has to be generated somewhere, but it is estimated that a diesel generator creates approximately 50% more GHG emissions, per kilo-watt hour, compared to the equivalent from the grid, in the UK at least.

Partly this can be summarized as a necessity of their temporary nature, although it is worth remembering that in other applications and in parts of the world with no grid, generators sometimes form the only, ‘permanent’ source of electrical power. Even in the developed world, banks of diesel generators are used to balance supply and demand around planned and unplanned power cuts. In this regard, their application at a week long event (maybe up to a month, including the build) is still relatively temporary – even by temporary generation standards[4]. Some might also argue that fossil diesel is too convenient, portable and valuable to be using for power generation, compared to coal or gas. If we must use non-renewable fuel, the limited supply would be better saved for transport. No one wants a coal fired car any time soon.

Despite the constant pressure to make sure ‘it just works’, and that there is sufficient backup capacity and overhead for unforeseen events, energy efficiency has been pursued for both environmental and economic reasons. So what is the scale of the problem in both cash and greenhouse gases? Due to the commercial nature of many large festivals, these can be questions only marginally easier to figure out than ‘How much did so-and-so get paid for the headline slot?’. The work of Julies Bicycle in particular has provided a great deal more data on this topic, although A: it’s a voluntary scheme, and B: festivals are not obliged to make their reports public.

What is Diesel anyway?

First of all, let’s talk about fuel, diesel specifically as we do not seem to see much in the way of petrol or gas generators at festivals. Gas, petrol and diesel can all be distilled from crude oil so, for one thing, fluctuations in the price of oil will have effects on all petroleum products.

Wikimedia Commons

Tax on fuel is a substantial part of the pump cost a consumer will pay, particularly in the UK[5], with fuel duty accounting for around 4% of all tax receipts in the UK. Diesel used for industrial purposes is dyed red (red diesel) and taxed at a much lower rate (11p a litre) than the kind of diesel (white diesel) you would buy from a filling station (58p a litre). Red diesel can only legally be used for industrial purposes, and conversely, any vehicle taxed for use on the road can only legally use white diesel. Aside from the dye and the tax, red and white diesel are essentially the same[6]. Finally, it may be worth noting that regulations regarding fossil diesel have progressively required lower levels of sulphur emissions, particularly from 2000 onwards.

Biodiesel, in terms of its general usage, is chemically very similar[7] to fossil diesel. The technical name is Fatty Acid Methyl Esters or FAME, and is regulated by the standards in EN14214.  Similar enough, that in some engines it can be used as a direct replacement for fossil diesel. Biodiesel blends are increasingly available ‘at the pump’ across Europe, with the current standards allowing blends to containing up to 5% biodiesel (E5) to be advertised simply as ‘diesel’ with a likely change to 10% (E10) coming in the near future. 1 in 3 cars in Sweden is expected to run on high proportion blends (E75) by 2030 and since 2005, Swedish filling stations above a certain size have been legally obliged to offer biofuel.

Of course, the main environmental benefit is that depending on the exact production pathway, the full life cycle emissions of biodiesel are estimated to range between 80%-95% lower compared to fossil diesel. For the purposes of estimating greenhouse gas emissions, only biodiesel from waste vegetable oil (WVO) is considered as having zero-emissions. Whether biodiesel from feedstock can be considered 100% renewable or sustainable is a complex issue[8].

In terms of tax in the UK, biodiesel is taxed at the same rate as diesel. There used to be a marginal exemption of 20p a litre but following a period of significant debate, HMRC effectively decided to scrap this ‘cash incentive’ in favour of handing out Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates to registered producers instead, which can be sold as carbon offsets. At the same time, individuals were made exempt from additional taxation providing they use or produce less than 2,500 litres of biodiesel in a year, which is thought to have helped accommodate small scale producers.

How much diesel gets used at a festival?

So how much diesel gets used at a festival? For the purposes of this document, we will use, what, at the time of writing I think is a reasonably cheap estimate of 70p per litre for red diesel and £1.10 per litre for biodiesel. We aren’t taking the labour, transport and other service charges into account either.

Festival Litres of red diesel Cost Litres of biodiesel Cost Total cost

(Average from 2009-12)

105,000 £73,500 13,500 £14,850 £88,350

(Average from 2010-14)

900 £630 10,000 £11,000 £11,630

Firstly we can see that Latitude, while only being two to three times “bigger”[9] than Shambala seems to have an exponentially larger fuel bill, of about eight times larger.

There may be various reasons for this, but we can at least rule out the idea that a basic economy of scale would actually make a large festival more efficient per person than a smaller festival. You might think the amount of lighting and sound systems required to entertain a crowd of 10,000 would be similar to that required to entertain 30,000 but at least at first glance this doesn’t seem to be the case. Certainly “more” is on offer at Latitude, with the tickets being approximately 25-40% more expensive than Shambala. Whether this translates into a programme with more headline acts, or a higher quantity and variety of acts, stallholders or an increased quality of infrastructure is hard to say.

It is interesting to note the potential market that larger festivals present; there is still 100,000 odd litres of red diesel to be displaced, while Shambala would still only need half of a standard-ish sized tanker delivery (20,000 litres).

What does all of this mean in terms of GHG emissions?

Festival Litres of red diesel Litres of biodiesel Total GHG tons from energy Energy GHG kg ppd

(Average from 2009-12)

105,000 13,500 279 2.7kg

(Just 2009)

16,000 0 56 2kg

(Average from 2010-14)

900 10,000 10 0.5kg

Eagle eyed readers will have spotted two sets of figures for Shambala that demonstrate the impact of switching from conventional diesel to WVO biodiesel. In the four years to 2014, the festival used increasing proportions of biodiesel and reached 100% in 2014; where no conventional diesel was used to generate energy. This wasn’t included in the cost table above, although interestingly the additional cost per litre of moving to biodiesel seems to have been effectively offset by other energy savings – whilst adding nearly 20,000 more person-days to the size of the audience. The availability of biodiesel solutions for a festival the size of Latitude seems to be an obvious barrier, given that it took a decent amount of time for a smaller and extremely green-oriented festival like Shambala to get to 100%.

On a personal level, the emissions per person-day range from 0.5kg to 2.7kg, so assuming a four-day whole festival ticket, this translates to 2kg-10.8kg. Expressed in litres of diesel, this would be just under one litre for Shambala and around three for Latitude.

You could say in Latitudes case, the costs are near to £1 per person day in fuel costs whereas for Shambala this is about 30p. This could be expressed as £4 and £1.20 respectively for a 4 day ‘whole festival ticket’, or 2.2% of the ticket price for Latitude and about 0.9% for Shambala.

Relatively minor, but it helps put it into context for the general consumer: this is where some of your money is ending up. Expressed in miles travelled by an average petrol car (39mpg) this would be something like 7 miles for Shambala and 40 miles for Latitude.

In conclusion

Overall it is worth bearing in mind the volatility of festivals. In the detail of the data, we can see year to year differences that cause total energy emissions to more than double in one year, then halve a few years later. In the case of the larger festivals this can mean a real terms change of as much as a hundred tons of carbon emissions at a time. It’s commendable for both to continue making a long term effort despite the apparent chaos caused by freak events and unforeseen circumstances. Again, this reinforces the idea of looking at broader averages rather than getting hung up on individual years.

Who is going to argue with artists or production about lowering their requests for mind blowing lights, sound and other power consuming trickery? Given the spiralling cost of headliners and the importance of live performance to artists careers, no one is going to want to put on a less than amazing spectacle. Traders have been known to haggle and even hide equipment from power suppliers to reduce their (comparatively slim) energy costs, despite turning over tens of thousands of pounds in a weekend. Plugging in an extra coffee grinder or tea urn could cost you hundreds of pounds, maybe just hide it behind a fridge…

Experimenting with power is something festivals and those who research them are loath to do during the actual event, which, on its own might stifle innovation. Both production and power supply need to work together very closely, to the degree that the organisers may find it extremely challenging to negotiate with one side without interfering with the work of the other. However, for power suppliers, deployment methods may well find a home here before finding longer term applications and greater savings in other industries.

Festivals like shouting about their green efforts, and more power to them, especially if this has even a tiny shred of an impact on wider perceptions. Where else in the world might the average person actually start to care in the least about power generation? Did that wind turbine at Glastonbury (in 1994-1995) affect perceptions of renewable power? On the other hand, I had estimated that the amount of diesel consumed, in a year, by the entire events sector (according to Powerful thinking) was the equivalent of a fifth of all the diesel consumed on UK roads, in a single day!

The move to renewables looks like it will be dominated by biodiesel despite the increased price per litre. While EN14214 regulates the composition of biodiesel, there does not appear to be an agreed certification or guarantee with regards to the origin or composition of the oil (or blend of oils) going into its creation. This leads to the unfortunate scenario where a WVO biodiesel producer might not operationally want to conform, or financially see the benefits outweighing the costs. No great surprise, given that the processes behind either waste or virgin production are varied. One supplier mentioned that, for domestic purposes, their product was similar in all the critical ways, but as it would not keep for more than 4-5 months in storage, it could not be certified; even if they wanted to go to the additional expense of doing so.

It has also been mentioned in the UK at least, that biodiesel from waste sources is the only financially viable way of operation at the moment and this likely underlies why there is currently no standard mechanism for ensuring that WVO is being used rather than virgin sources. The only sort-of-proxy measure that might be used is, funnily enough, a Waste Carrier Licence for the necessary collection and handling of the raw material: presumably if you were using virgin sources, you wouldn’t need such a license.

So, festival goers: why not ask your favourite festival to use as much WVO as possible? The fuel costs in your ticket price are only 1-2% of the total price anyway, would it really kill you to pay a few more pounds for more WVO and potentially knock some 25-30% of emissions off the whole thing in one go?

(And perhaps more importantly, take public transport, take your god damn tent away with you, eat mostly plants… etc)


[1] Person-days is a fairer way of comparing attendance across separate cases, year-on-year or from one festival to another. A person attending the whole length of a 4 day festival accounts for 4 person days, a day ticket holder counts for 1 person day.

[2] From Julies Bicycle definitions (Jam Packed, 2009). For reference a “Major” festival would require a capacity/attendance of 60,000 people or more.

[3] Purely for the reason of establishing the authors hip credentials, it is necessary to point out that Yawning Man were, perhaps, the first band of this type to be known for ‘generator parties’ in the late ‘80s.

[4] Taking a huge tangent for a minute, a coal power plant, for instance, is expected to have a lifespan of around 40 years. You could expect an extremely well maintained and well treated diesel generator to last potentially as much as 100,000 hours or about 11 years of operation. Reactor 4 at Chernobyl only lasted 3 years by the way. Anyway, tangent over, eyes back up there!

[5] As groups such as the Association for British Drivers are keen to point out, UK fuel duty is consistently the highest of all European countries and approximately seven times higher than countries like the US.

[6] White diesel must have a minimum cetane number of 51 whereas red requires 45. The energy-density of each remains essentially the same, but higher cetane numbers ignite faster and generally help engines perform more smoothly. The equivalent term for petrol is octane.

[7] The negatives are that it is more likely to ‘gel’ at lower temperatures, has a higher water content, does not store as well over the long term, is marginally less powerful at peak and is more active as a solvent potentially causing wear on some materials. The positives are that it is much less toxic, creates practically no sulphur emissions and even seems to lubricate engines a bit better than fossil diesel.

[8] Department for Transport data gives conventional diesel 82 grams of co2 produced per Mejajoule of energy produced – depending on the source and method of production (Oilseed rape, Soy, Palm Oil) virgin biodiesel ranges from as high as 73g to as low as 38g, whereas cooking oil and tallow (WVO) was 13g.

[9] Depending how you count it, in person-days, maximum capacity or even the size of the physical sites themselves.

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