Power From the People

What happens when creative consumers decide to generate their own energy?


Here's one way to get electricity: First, find two old metal tanks, of varying widths and heights—the kind used to contain compressed gases will do. You might have a few lying around, at least if you hang out in junkyards or machine shops chockablock with working metal sculptors.

Then take your angle grinder—you've got an angle grinder, right?—and smooth down the surface of the smaller tank, slicing off any protruding pieces with its palm-sized circular saw. The grinder will get them—just put a little muscle behind it. It'd be good to have a box of replacement discs around, as they wear out quickly.

Now put a different blade on the grinder and cut around the entire circumference of both tanks to get yourself cylinders of the desired height. Really, anyone can do it. I'm no trained metal worker, but I was able to perform the grinding and slicing OK when I had to. It was even sort of fun.

My circumference cut was uneven, though; if you're an amateur, get someone with a better eye and steadier hand to even it out for you so you can get something close to a seal when you put a lid on top of the wider one. Nestle the smaller cut tank inside the other, attach a grate to its bottom, then funnel carbon-based waste into the top. It can be wood, paper, walnut shells, even coffee grounds. All that matters is that it has some carbon bonds that can break down to make heat and burnable gases.

Get a fire going inside the first cylinder to heat that carbon-based waste, without quite burning it. What you want is to start a process called pyrolysis, in which the carbon-based stuff gets warmed up in an oxygen-poor environment, releasing volatile gases that aren't fully incinerated. The carbon then becomes char.

Keep heating those released volatiles over the char until you've reduced the output gas to mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen; that gas will "live" in the space between the inner and outer cylinder, and can ultimately be sucked out via a hole in the top, through tubes, to run into a generator engine, which will burn them like it burns any other fuel to operate. The byproducts will be carbon dioxide and water.

This technique can also run the engine in your car, which is what the one I helped build in an Oakland metal-worker warehouse last August was intended to do.

As with any biofuel, this process is in essence carbon-neutral, since it only releases back into the atmosphere the carbon that had been taken out by the raw-material plants as they grew. Had that bio-waste not been burned, it would have eventually released the carbon back into the atmosphere through decomposition anyway. Burning fossil fuels, by contrast, introduces new carbon into the atmosphere that was previously sequestered underground.

The chemical and technical realities behind this fuel generation have been very much simplified in the above description, but a workable machine to manufacture usable, carbon-neutral energy really can be constructed in a single afternoon. What you have just built is a jury-rigged version of a "gasifier." While gasifiers haven't been widely used in America for decades, it's not a new technology. In Europe during World War II, when liquid fuel was hard to come by, these generators were adopted as an impromptu way to get many thousands of cars moving.

Most of us, thankfully, have other ways to acquire energy. To light your living room, you can flick a switch on your wall, completing a flow of electrons that began at a giant (usually coal-powered) plant hundreds of miles away. To start your car, you can drive to a station likely within a few miles of wherever you live and pump in a dense, energy-rich, ready-made liquid fuel.

Even in this era of rising energy prices, the costs of electricity and gasoline are still manageable. It requires around 15 cents a mile to move at typical gas prices and mileage, so you can travel more than 35 miles for one hour at minimum wage. In Los Angeles, it costs me about 50 cents a day to illuminate every room, keep a stereo and a computer running pretty much all day, charge iPods and cell phones, run a refrigerator, and keep a microwave oven, toaster, and George Foreman grill all at the ready.

Lately, however, concerns about depleting oil supplies and global warming have convinced many Americans that the easy, nearly free energy ride is over. From Oscar-winning movies to the Nobel Peace Prize, from government to industry, anxiety over climate change has unleashed a lot of heavy thinking about devising new systems to power our lives. Even giants in the energy industry are beginning to reconsider the top-down broadcast model that has dominated the provision of power for most of the past century. Under that legacy system, faraway plants burning coal or natural gas zip electrons out to all of us at the end point of the network, losing nearly 70 percent of the energy in the process through waste heat and line loss.

Many of the policy ideas being generated amount to wealth-reducing restrictions, such as higher taxes on fossil fuels and mandatory caps on emissions. But a growing number of venture capitalists, small businesses, and government regulators are asking a provocative question: What kind of efficiencies could be realized if power was created by, or at least much nearer, the end user instead?

Experiments in such "distributed generation"—where power is produced by multiple sources through multiple methods, much closer to the point of final use—are happening on industrial scales, via such means as combined heat and power (CHP) and solar. But they are also possible on a smaller scale, as part of a burgeoning "people power" movement. Lots of distributed generation thinking is based on the already old-fashioned solar panel model. But in Berkeley, California, a group of artists and gearheads is exploring more complicated ways to turn the old electricity model upside down without a single dollar in subsidies or a giant power plant.

Their trials, tribulations, and occasional flashes of glory make a compelling case study of how something as emblematic of the machine age as energy production can become intimate and personal. These innovators imagine a transformation similar to the evolution of computers over the past 40 years: from a mainframe model in which consumer interaction was both unwanted and enormously difficult, to a networked personal laptop model where both hardware and software are widely accessible and, for those interested, adjustable to your personal and creative choices, circumstances, and whims—remaining all the while deeply intertwined with an industrial mass-production system.

Their experiences also indicate that industrial creativity has a hard time co-existing with current urban regulations—and that the old model of generating and distributing electricity, with all its flaws, is unlikely to be knocked off its perch any time soon.

The Shipyard vs. the State
During the summer of 2007, I was introduced to a new way of thinking about personalized power as I watched a group of bohemian machine-artists grapple with gasification, trying to master it, teach it, and ultimately transform it into a huge art project.

The effort was spearheaded by Jim Mason, a Berkeley artist I knew through Burning Man, an annual festival held in Nevada's Black Rock desert. Mason was forced to think about self-generated power by the city of Berkeley, which cut off his electricity during a dispute over building code violations.

In 2001 Mason rented a couple of buildings on a big lot in a mixed-used, quasi-industrial part of town to start what he called the Shipyard, an artists' workshop. It officially covered two addresses on two streets, filling about a third of a block. It had lots of outdoor space for art projects and parties. For storage and more indoor work space, Mason championed what he thought was a quintessentially Berkeleyesque solution: repurposed, recycled shipping containers that he scrounged from Bay Area ports, stacked two high.

Mason and his collaborators threw elaborate art parties. One, celebrating Ernest Shackleton's disaster-plagued Antarctic expedition of a century ago, featured meals of faux penguin served on ice plates to dozens of guests crammed into a shipping container kept below freezing, with fire effects pumping up through columns of ice all around them. A "How to Destroy the Universe Festival" combined extreme industrial noise acts with fire (and meat) art. The Shipyard artists were self-consciously bohemian, charmingly aware of their own absurdity. During one of my interviews with Mason, I noted a dry-erase board in their shop on which someone had scrawled a list of "tools needed," starting with "14" chopsaw blade" and "pile of money." The crew created self-mythologizing slogans: "Shipyard: When Overkill Isn't Enough," "Shipyard: When Biblically Huge Machines Have to Be There Overnight." The artists genuinely believed they were providing a service to Berkeley, a city with a reputation for liberalism and creativity.

But Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief David Orth didn't see it that way, especially after receiving unexpected calls about 40-foot propane fire jets (typical Shipyard entertainment) in the air over his city. Joan MacQuarrie, the woman in charge of building inspection at the city's planning department, found nearly everything about the situation troublesome. "No use permit," she recalls. "They moved cargo containers onto the lot, which constitutes building, without any building permits. There were other safety violations. The cargo containers, some of them were occupied or appeared to be occupied. Fire hazard issues. Exiting issues."

Mason thought Berkeley was flouting its heritage by being so picayune about his attempts at innovative recycled living. "All the issues came down to trying to solve liability problems," he says. "Their first thought always seemed to be 'We must act to cover our ass' so no one can come back to them over injuries. There was this inordinately high valuation of a culture of safety, even in a city whose reputation is founded on experimentation, creativity, and innovation."

Filled shipping containers stay stacked, often nine high, on rolling ships; institutions ranging from traveling art shows to specialized communities in Europe had been using them for housing for years. But the containers didn't fall under any existing building codes and thus there was no standard way to certify them as safe building materials, especially in a city that is seismically active.

The containers could eventually be folded into an existing code, says Orth (who has resigned since being interviewed), but they probably would have to be encased in frames or transformed in some other way to qualify as buildings, thus eliminating the whole point of the Shipyard's experiment in cheap recycling. "They know they need structural engineering," Orth says. "It's not going to be inexpensive to create buildings out of these containers. It's gonna cost as much as it takes to build a building."

That New-Car Smell
Regulatory problems soon led to electrical problems. In March 2002 the city government decided that one way to deal with these stubborn artists was to cut off their power. Power generation suddenly became more than just an intellectual curiosity for Mason. Looking around at the existing world of people trying to live without plugging into the existing power grid, he was disappointed, seeing mostly the sort of 1960s mentality that figured if you had solar panels on the roof to heat your herbal tea, you were living a properly low-impact life.

"I wanted to take up power not from a Luddite 'the world is being destroyed' mentality that we should all do nothing, sit in a corner, and not consume at all, or since we can't, just do a little and feel guilty anyway," Mason says. "I wanted to take it up as a culture of potential abundance, of doing and engagement."

So he and some of his pals experimented with living large off the grid. Tea, shmea; they needed to operate three-phase industrial power tools. So they scrounged transformers and off-the-shelf generators from junkyards, bought inverter arrays on eBay, assembled solar panels and switching stations. It took them many months and many failures along the way, but they ended up cobbling together a system that successfully supplied their workshop with electricity, controlled by a snazzy computer program that made it possible to trace all operations online. Though it tended to trip out at least once a day, Mason hopes eventually to offer a version of the power system bundled together in one shipping container as a "powertainer" for off-grid use in the Third World and elsewhere.

Hearing Mason explain it all, the Shipyard's multiyear experimental electricity generation project sounds absurdly Fitzcarraldan—nothing that any normal person would confuse for a suitable replacement for flicking a switch. While the power system he developed for the Shipyard was ultimately a jumble of solar, batteries, and biodiesel generators, while immersing himself in interesting ways to self-generate power, he did stumble upon a simple old technology—gasifier engines—that, he imagined, could help people rethink energy at a profound level, especially when it came to moving vehicles.

Mason and friends built their first gasifier, similar to the one described at the beginning of this article, in one day. Feeling evangelical about this weird old tech, they installed the engine in the bed of a truck owned by the San Francisco artist and 2007 mayoral candidate Chicken John Rinaldi. The gases produced by the contraption were sucked into the engine on its downstroke via old vacuum-cleaner hoses. Rinaldi began preaching the wonders of gasification on city streets and in the parking lots of Silicon Valley tech conferences, explaining how a car could run on coffee grounds. They dubbed the vehicle the Café Racer.

For Mason, gasification demonstrated the potentially wide range of individual choice in power. He began imagining eco-power stores where you could choose what you burned in your gasifier based on the scent you wanted in the exhaust. At the same time you'd be solving an environmental problem by burning for fuel what would otherwise be waste. Thinking further, Mason figured out a way to link gasification to one of the decade's biggest concerns: carbon footprints.

The Mechabolic Hypothesis
The key in making a 21st century environmentally friendly process out of an old 20th century machine is the char left over after gasification. In the Amazon rain forest, scientifically mysterious processes create a charcoal known as terra preta ("black earth") or "agri-char," which has been used for thousands of years to enrich the soil and boost agricultural productivity. More recently, it got a glowing write-up in Scientific American in May 2007 and made Wired's "JargonWatch" this March.

By taking the leftover carbon char and plowing it back into the ground, gasification might do more than the mostly carbon-neutral act of burning biofuel. The process is potentially carbon-negative, keeping most of the carbon in the ground rather than the atmosphere while helping plants grow faster, which takes still more carbon out of the atmosphere.

At the 2007 Burning Man gathering, for which the art theme was "green man," Mason planned to unveil a huge sculpture illustrating the potential of gasification and its terra preta byproduct. He called it the "Mechabolic," after what he had started to call the Mechabolic Hypothesis.

"Whether food or fuel, animals or engines, it is the same chemical process, partaking of the same inputs, exhaling the same exhausts," he says. "Fuel, machines, and fire are the synthetic forms of food, body and respiration." All involve putting together and breaking apart carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It's important to be mindful of the complicated interconnections of it all; the carbon in anything is going to remain in the entire bio-economy in some form, whether burnt or composted or eaten. But some ways of transforming it, such as gasification, are better in terms of greenhouse gases than others. Plain composting, for example—an environmentalist favorite—if done without proper aeration during the process, produces methane, a particularly heinous greenhouse gas, worse than carbon dioxide.

The 120-foot-long Mechabolic was meant to resemble a huge mechanical slug, with a "mouth" that mulched waste and a "stomach" that gasified it. The gas would be used to run an old dragster engine that would propel the sculpture, as well as flame effects. The excretion would be terra preta, which would be fed to edible plants attached to the sides of the moving sculpture. When the Mechabolic was little more than an idea, it was already gaining respectful attention in The New York Times, Business 2.0, and other prominent publications.

Around the time those stories started to appear, in May 2007, Berkeley officials decided enough was enough. The city gave the Shipyard a three-day order to vacate, citing 32 code violations and threatening fines of $2,500 a day. Mason began a counterattack through blogs and the press, ginning up dozens of emails and calls to city officials in his defense.

The tone of some of them is captured well in an email the Shipyard artist Ryon Gesink circulated among friends. Gesink wrote movingly about having to remove huge containers and several years' worth of art, of seeing his dream of a space to create and innovate squashed. The headline on his account: "Small communist California city to shed 1,000,000 pounds of excessively interesting culture in days; City leaders ensure self righteousness, boredom to be restored shortly."

While pressuring city officials to back down through mockery and public jousting, Mason also did attempt to address some of their concerns. He disconnected the shipping-container power system. (The system had alarmed Orth, the fire chief, because of the non-professional wiring and all the batteries, and potentially flammable battery acids.) Mason hired an architect to negotiate with the city a way to bring the shipping-container structures up to code, and in the meantime he removed most of them from the lot.

Although the artists were not legally permitted to do anything at the Shipyard, the Mechabolic and other gasifier-powered art vehicles were nonetheless constructed on the site throughout that summer. As late as November 2007, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was bringing people by the facility to show off the ingenuity happening in his city, even though it was illegal.

In January 2008 city officials began meeting again with Mason and his team. MacQuarrie, the building inspector, said in January that she was pleased with the signs of cooperation she had seen thus far and that she hoped the innovative art space and its power experiments can maintain a happy home in her city. Just as long as Mason and his friends obtain the proper permits and meet all use, zoning, building, and safety regulations. In February, the Shipyard officially received a use permit and legal power at one of its two addresses, and is on track to make the other legal as well.

Still, Mason feels crushed by the conflict—and radicalized. While others on his team are more optimistic that it will all work out, he thinks experimental living in a highly regulated context might ultimately be hopeless. Never any kind of libertarian, he was shocked to discover that "giving someone the right to shut down a physical site is no less a significant power than giving someone the power to arrest me. The lives of 30 people have been stopped, and there is no immediate review of that decision.

"I live life in economies based on what is interesting," he adds. "I've found no matter what the rules or processes, in the end the thing that's interesting somehow gets chosen. But getting beat down, I realized that is completely irrelevant. They will not listen or make consideration for interest in anything. They only care, what does the letter of the code say, and does that completely encapsulate the conditions they determine are sitting in front of them? It's an impossible set-up in which to engage the messy flux of the world."

Local Power
Mason is inspired by the cultures of hot-rodding and hacking, areas where control over one's machines, life, and pleasure is small, personal, and imaginative. He's not out to replace one big power system with another, or to convince the world that we all need to run our cars on wood chips.

But every time John Rinaldi would take the gasified Café Racer out to demonstrate how gasification could turn trash to fuel with techniques anyone could potentially execute in an afternoon, something would happen, he says. After a few seconds of interested delight, someone would ask: How does this scale up?

The questioner would seem a bit disappointed when he'd say, it's not meant to scale up. It's supposed to change your whole view of how power can be generated and distributed: not top-down but bottom-up, not adding unpleasant waste to the world but eliminating it.

Colorful experiments like the Café Racer are below the radar of the larger distributed generation community. A growing number of policy intellectuals, activists, and entrepreneurs see systematic, not merely personal, benefits from relying less on big power plants. A 2006 monograph by the environmentalist Avory Lovins, called Small Is Profitable, neatly sums up the arguments for distributed generation, from efficiencies of scale to lower greenhouse emissions to an energy infrastructure more resistant to terrorist attacks. The journal Distributed Energy exudes a worldview far removed from Mason's unregulated, do-it-yourself mentality. It's a world enmeshed in, and seeking help from, either government or the existing big utility system at every turn, from subsidies to changing local regulations that delimit or complicate pumping self-generated power back to the grid.

Some people excited about the Mason model think it can become something bigger than a passion for hobbyists. Charlie Sellers, a member of Mason's Mechabolic crew, brings gasification-based cooking and heating technologies to off-the-grid areas of the Third World.

Tom Price is a 20-year veteran of environmental policy wonkery who worked for Burning Man this year as their liaison to the environmental and energy communities. He helped organize a corporate gift of desert-based solar panels that after the event began supplying free solar power to nearby Nevada communities. He has spun that project off into a company called Black Rock Solar, looking to repeat the experiment in other high desert locales. He's been talking up the Mechabolic project to people in the enviro-tech community, and says "the consensus opinion is Jim Mason is six months ahead of the curve."

When Price and Rinaldi took the Café Racer to the CleanTech 2007 convention in Santa Clara, California, last May and "explained how we were making hydrogen out of junk, we ended up surrounded by CEOs and [venture capitalists] who were flabbergasted. I've been working on environmental issues for 20 years on the policy side, and I had always assumed like many people that the best solutions came from large institutions set up specifically for this purpose.

"We have in this country both a tradition of independence and a tradition of machines bringing ever increasing levels of comfort. And the latter has been in the ascendant. But there is in our cultural DNA this idea that we can provide for ourselves without any outside help." When it comes to the potential of gasification, Price says, "only a few hundred or a few thousand technically understand what we are talking about today. But I suspect the number will increase exponentially in very short order."

The Ride of the Mechabolic
Maybe. But Americans who are not convinced for reasons of ideology or identity that the top-down, flick-a-switch, pull-up-to-the-pump model of power distribution is passé might contemplate the travails of the Mechabolic project and decide there's no reason to rush into any big changes.

Constructing the monstrous slug involved months of legal fighting, last-minute entreaties for cash injections from the far-flung Burning Man community, and weeks of all-nighters. Then everything had to be taken apart and moved in shipping containers and trucks to the Black Rock Desert, where the crew reassembling it faced a punishing sun, toppling and blinding windstorms, and the sinking morale that comes from realizing you've bitten off much more than you can comfortably chew.

Through the week of Burning Man, Mechabolic remained a work in progress. The curious sight of the 120-foot-long metal skids topped with mulchers, shiny engines, gasifier hoppers, and vegetable and spice plants, including radishes, zucchini, and sage, with fewer than half of the ribs that were meant to give the sculpture the shape of a slug, made people stop and ask what was up. Thus Mason got to do what he liked most: explain the potential of gasification and terra preta for humanizing and diversifying our relationship with power while reducing our carbon footprint.

Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, September 2—the next-to-last day of the event—it came together. I was around through sheer luck. I had been up all night, Burning Man–style, listening to a singer playing banjo and ukulele, and I wandered by the Mechabolic work site to find Mason finally turning over the engine. Some other up-all-nighters and I helped to get the machine moving by pushing it, and the loudly throoming engine barreled the monster through the playa dust that had built up around its wheels. It was moving! And shaking! Bottles of homemade wine passed from person to person crouching on the beast's skids, grinning and whooping. The air was thick with the joy of the improbable and absurd achieved.

About a minute later, with a ferocious cough of transmission fluid all over Mason, the Mechabolic groaned to a halt. It had moved about 68 feet—nearly one for every $1,000 spent on the project, Mason mordantly noted with a smeared smile.

I had assumed, at that moment of triumph, that the Mechabolic was running off pyrolized waste matter. I was mistaken. It turns out the gasification system was only providing gas to burn for fire effects, and powering a generator for lights. When you're trying to get a car to run via gasification, it works best to start it off with a standard fuel and then ease it over to the gasified junk. So for that minute of motion, the Mechabolic actually was running on off-the-shelf motor fuel. The dream still had some bugs.

The Homebrew Power Club
The costs in time and sanity borne by Mason and his crew were apparent. They were also far beyond what most of the non-art-obsessed will want to pay. But so were the innovations that arose from, say, the Homebrew Computer Club of Silicon Valley, that mid-'70s gang of PC enthusiasts—including a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—dedicated to DIY computer making. Yet from the homebrewers' irrational enthusiasms arose the modern world of personal computing.

We haven't reached the point where flicking a switch for coal-fired power from far away seems as inadequate as the five-mainframes-for-the-nation computer vision that the proto-hackers of the '70s were rebelling against. But Mason notes that all sorts of human endeavors, from our computing to our food to our transportation, have evolved away from bare resource economizing. They've become instead arenas for play and assertions of identity—or, as Mason likes to think of it, areas in which there is at least some opportunity to impress girls.

"We can turn power into something experiential, expressive, personal," he says. "Not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be explored, like the cultural movement in food from a thing you eat for raw energy to food as an idiom of pleasure, creativity, and expression, an excuse for gathering friends and family.

"Computing had a similar transformation. It wasn't until the computer became an idiom of personal expression that it exploded into something ubiquitous as clothes on our body.

"So much of our energy dialogue is still about how big corporate players can do better things, or forcing carmakers to do more reasonable things by taxing the bejesus out of oil so the government can smartly fund new research.…There isn't enough faith that things can come up meaningfully from the bottom, that through a culture of hacking and play there could be broad, self-realized solutions."

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of This Is Burning Man (BenBella) and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement