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.