Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Jozef||

    Soooo... When can we expect the artist community to be sued into oblivion for failing to pay fuel taxes?

  • ||

    That was an awesome article. Loved it!

    I'm sending links to all my green power buddies.

    I've looked at the process for using gas from burning wood to power cars, like many Europeans did during World War II. Technologies which were once common, like that, were abandoned not just because it's easier to buy petrol from a service station, but because the new technologies were more efficient in other ways. My understanding is that using gasification like that in a car used to clog up people's fuel systems, etc. with sludge after only a few years. When gasoline goes up over a certain price, and the R&D dollars go into developing generators and engines that are made to use those fuel sources, some of those old technologies will make a lot more sense again.

    In regards to energy becoming more or a distributed phenomenon, I thought immediately of Toshiba's new mini-nuclear reactors...

    "Toshiba has developed a new class of micro size Nuclear Reactors that is designed to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks."

    --20 feet by 6 feet

    --200 kilowatts

    --fail-safe and totally automatic, will not overheat.

    --no control rods

    --self sustaining process lasts 40 years

    --half the cost of grid energy.

    "Toshiba expects to install the first reactor in Japan in 2008 and to begin marketing the new system in Europe and America in 2009."

    I think some Hit & Runner first cued me onto the Toshiba mini-reactors. Hat tip to whomever that was, but it looks like exactly the kind off grid, local, distributed power Doherty is talking about.

  • ||

    Okay, here's a link that should actually work for those mini reactors.

  • ed||

    designed to power individual apartment buildings

    Whoo, I can just imagine the condo association meetings.

    GRUMPY OLD MAN 1: You want to put WHAT in our building?!
    HIS WIFE: Oh my gaawwwd!
    GRUMPY OLD MAN 2: I survived Treblinka for this?
    PRESIDENT: Order, order!
    ALL: No nukes! No nukes!

  • e||

    As interesting and colorful as the characters in this article are, I wonder if we might also look into redesigning communities so that people don't have to get in their cars and drive for miles to get to the grocery store or run other errands. Or maybe orient communities around public transportation?

    Oops, sorry, I am a victim of the centralized, bureaucratic culture, typified by stagnant cultures found in Europe and Japan. Fortunately, the Free Market (TM) has rendered this culture obsolete. Let's just get to work retooling our SUVs to run on coffee grounds; then we won't have to go through the painful process of changing our suburban-oriented communities.

  • ||

    Here in California, former governor, and now Attorney General, Jerry Brown sued, I believe it was both, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties for not including greenhouse gases in their CEQA approval processes.

    http://www.cp-dr.com/node/1901

    Nevermind that people still argue about how to measure global warming world wide and no one can really say what the effect of your five acre development project will be on climate change--if it's in CEQA, you have to account for it. So if you're a developer what do you do?

    A mini-nuclear reactor might be one solution.

    I would also guess that these would be great for people who live way off in the boonies too. They can sell you 40 years worth of power and you can take it pretty much anywhere?

    Never mind looking for the pony, I don't see any horse puckey.

  • ||

    The main issue is the smaller the reactor the less negative reactivity is available (i.e. a large reactor can be 'really shut down,' as you get smaller, the difference between max s/d and criticallity gets smaller). This is the reason I am somwhat skeptical of 'fail-safe' from a 200 kw reactor (and is that thermal power or electical output?)

    The army tried small 'field portable' reactors decades ago at the dawn of the atomic age. Unlike TMI, it actually did kill more people than Ted Kennedy's car

  • ||

    This propelled the control rod and the entire reactor vessel upwards, which killed the operator who had been standing on top of the vessel, leaving him pinned to the ceiling by a control rod.

    I was just making sure this was in Kolohe's link.

  • Xmas||

    Well, the good thing about Carbon Monoxide poisoning is that you end up a nice pink color. No need for toxic embalming fluids to give your corpse that rosy glow.

  • ||

    The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that fits into the reactor core.

    First a nitpick - control rods do not per se initiate the reaction - they stop the reaction; you remove them to bring a PLWR critical.

    For failsafe criteria, I am curious-
    1) How they handle Lithium's *chemical* reactivity - although sodium moderated reactors are not uncommmon, they are hardly 'maintenance free' like this one is supposed to be.
    2) I am presuming that the the lithium is also used as coolant in addition to being the moderator (as with sodium reactors - and you absolutely cannot use water). I wonder how they handle a loss of coolant casualty.

  • ||

    Doesn't the military routinely use cargo containers to build forward bases?

  • ||

    Welcome back, Mr. Doherty.

    Who'd have thought they'd lead ya (Who'd have thought they'd lead ya)
    Here where we need ya (Here where we need ya)

  • ||

    I wonder how they handle a loss of coolant casualty.

    From the reactor side, the loss of coolant is same as loss of moderator, which should power things down. How to keep the coolant from interacting with the environment would be my worry. Im guessing the containment vessel keeps water away.

    I always thought sodium cooled/moderated subs was a crazy idea too. I guess you were already screwed if sea water was getting to the reactor core.

  • ||

    robc-
    Ah you're right about the locc; I was thinking of chernobyl whereby it's design (graphite moderation?) a locc caused a postive reactivity insertion.

    It's been at least 8 years since I studied this stuff in any detail.

  • ||

    Kolohe,

    17 years since I got my NukE degree, 14 since I used it.

    Im surprised I remember anything.

  • ||

    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.

    Actually power flows from hundreds of miles away but the electrons are already in the wire and are not going anywhere. They just move back and forth 120 times a second. Thats one way for 1/60 of a second for the positive alternation and the other way for the negative 1/60 of a second alternation.

    (Talk about nit picky!)

  • ||

    Click on the link below to read about a company that has created a smaller scale wind power technology that can be used on buildings.

    Unlike the conventional wind power gizmos which are these huge things on towers, this is a smaller scale device that blends in with
    the architecture of the building.

    I hope the Toshiba thing is safe. Even for
    conventional reactors who work fine, the cancer rates downwind are 50-80% higher as compared to the normal population. Something that the nuclear power industry does not like to publicize.

    http://www.avinc.com/wind.asp

  • ||

    Now that I've RTFA, I also agree: awesome article. Best non-Balko one I've seen so far this year.

  • ||

    e,
    "As interesting and colorful as the characters in this article are, I wonder if we might also look into redesigning communities so that people don't have to get in their cars and drive for miles to get to the grocery store or run other errands. Or maybe orient communities around public transportation?"

    Been done, with some not-so-great results:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Block_(Judge_Dredd)

  • ||

    Ken,
    "I would also guess that these would be great for people who live way off in the boonies too. They can sell you 40 years worth of power and you can take it pretty much anywhere?"

    Keeping in mind that it puts out 200 KW, it would the you, the boonies, and 40 of your closest friends. I checked our usage, and even with the hot tub and sauna, we only average about 4 KW.

  • ||

    Bobster,
    "Actually power flows from hundreds of miles away but the electrons are already in the wire and are not going anywhere. They just move back and forth 120 times a second. Thats one way for 1/60 of a second for the positive alternation and the other way for the negative 1/60 of a second alternation."

    Unless its the very first time electricity was put through the wire...no really.

  • ||

    my dong burns on solar energy

  • ||

    Dello | April 28, 2008, 6:45pm | #

    Actually power flows from hundreds of miles away but the electrons are already in the wire and are not going anywhere. They just move back and forth 120 times a second.


    Unless its the very first time electricity was put through the wire...no really.


    Errm, no Bobster has it right. Conductive wire relies on the principal that electrons in certain materials (Cu, Al, Si, etc.) are easily moved from their orbital fields.

    When you flip the switch the power plant supplies electricity one electron at a time. That first electron bumps an electron in an atom of copper from its spot into the outer field of another atom which in turn bumps its electron into another and so forth. Think of it as an atomic domino cascade.

    It is this "domino effect" that allows electricity to travel at nearly the speed of light and is why no matter how far you are from the power source your action is, effectively, instantaneous. When the power switch is off, there is no electron flow and there is no difference in the wire whether it is connected to power or not.

    You don't need to "prime" wire like you would a water pipe attached to a wellhead.

  • ||

    Brian, Good job, but your figure of 70% transmission line loss is off by a factor of 10. Typical loss is around 7% not 70%!

    -pEEf

  • ||

    Good article Brian!
    I have to admit that I hadn't heard what happened to The Shipyard after it's notice to evacuate. The artists there have put out some interesting stuff including the Neverwas Haul.

  • Guy Montag||

    Hey Kramer,

    I've looked at the process for using gas from burning wood to power cars, like many Europeans did during World War II. Technologies which were once common, like that, were abandoned not just because it's easier to buy petrol from a service station, but because the new technologies were more efficient in other ways. My understanding is that using gasification like that in a car used to clog up people's fuel systems, etc. with sludge after only a few years. When gasoline goes up over a certain price, and the R&D dollars go into developing generators and engines that are made to use those fuel sources, some of those old technologies will make a lot more sense again.

    Did you forget about your Seinfeld episode where you were cooking food on Jerry's car engine? Oh yea, that was an accident.

  • ||

    Kwix,
    "Errm, no Bobster has it right. Conductive wire relies on the principal that electrons in certain materials (Cu, Al, Si, etc.) are easily moved from their orbital fields."

    My "no really" wasn't hint enough? : )

  • ||

    "I wonder if we might also look into redesigning communities..."

    Nice to let the authoritarians into a libertarian conversation.

  • ||

    .. can't believe that I'm the pedant here ..

    .. said electrons described above move back and forth every 1/60th of a second .. 60Hz .. the spend 1/120th of a second in the positive side and 1/120th of a second in the negative side ..

    .. Hobbit the Electrical Engineer

  • e||

    "Nice to let the authoritarians into a libertarian conversation."

    'cuz sprawl is teh freedoms!!!11

  • ||

    Based on a decade or so of working on the idea of distributed
    power, my take is the State of California really dislikes the idea.

    Sure, we have net metering, but with a limit. No large (>10KW)
    generators. State-wide cap is 2.3% of total power. Myriad restrictions
    on home-power production.

    Consider a thought experiment. If aliens from a distant world were
    to drop off a magic, non-polluting 1GW power plant in your backyard,
    could you hook it to the grid, and let all the world enjoy the benefit?
    The answer is NO! You would have to pay the cost for the power that publicly-regulated monopolies _would_ have generated. The idiocy
    of this situation even made it into Forbes Magazine. Can a company run a natural gas peaker plant to trim off the Tier 3 or Tier 4 power costs? No!

    Rogue solar is the safe way to go. A sad fact.

  • nfl jerseys||

    mjg

  • nfl jerseys||

    mjg

  • Jordan 6 Rings||

    very good

  • Nike Dunk SB High||

    is good

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online