In 2008 reason reported on the troubles that the regulatory authorities of the city of Berkeley, California, brought to bear on a machine artist named Jim Mason and his crew at a build space called the Shipyard ("Power From the People," May 2008). Mason and his team thought they were conducting interesting artistic experiments with fire and destructive machinery and repurposing old shipping containers as live/work spaces. Berkeley officials didn't see it that way: They just saw shenanigans that might be dangerous and didn't fit their existing bureaucratic standards for entertainment, living, and building.
The feud eventually led the city to shut off Mason's electricity. To power themselves—and their Burning Man art projects—he and his crew experimented with "gasification." This process creates essentially carbon neutral energy via "burning" carbon-based refuse (like coffee grounds, corn husks, or nut shells) in a low oxygen environment to produce gases burnable in an engine.
As Mason's interest in gasification techniques grew, the art project morphed into a business called All Power Labs which is still running out of that same Berkeley property. It is now a 40-employee, patent-holding company pulling in about $5 million a year selling gasifier products such as "Power Pallets" and "Power Cubes" to anyone with access to burnable biomass waste, including in Liberia, Haiti, and the Philippines.
The company has been glowingly profiled in tech mags like Fast Company and Gigaom, and Berkeley has seemed to recognize the value All Power Labs brings to its vaunted "Green Corridor." The city apparently prefers working with an ecologically conscious power business to dealing with some arty weirdos.
Mason says his product is demanded not just by rural villages seeking to light their huts, but by industries in countries with unreliable power grids wanting a cheaper solution than diesel generators (or solar). "At that $1.50 per watt price point, a customer that buys a Power Pallet to replace a generator and diesel fuel can recover their costs in 15 months," Gigaom reported.
"Merely trying to manifest a simple DIY idea isn't enough," Mason has learned. "To be meaningful and engage the world, it has to be more than just 'let's make this, it kind of works, take it to Maker Faire, fun!' thing," he says. It's rather a "manufacturing process of incredibly disciplined management, sales, control, regularity, expressing," he jokes, "all the proper Republican values."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Alt Power From Art to Business".