Wednesday, May 14, 2008

artists, energy-- and the ability of the market to adjust

From Brian Doherty in Reason, an article entitled Power From the People: What happens when creative consumers decide to generate their own energy?

Doherty opens with a homemade energy example:

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....

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....

And then, to the art/energy combo by Jim Mason, a Berkeley artist Doherty met 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....

Click on the link above to read about Mason's efforts...


At May 15, 2008 at 10:10 AM , Blogger Mike Kole said...

I found this to be an excellent Reason article. It is an illustrative example of how governments thwart innovation that could lead to more effecient power generation, and thus, less environmentally damaging and cheaper besides.


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