NEWS Meet the Berkeley burners trying to hack climate change

Meet the Berke­ley burn­ers try­ing to hack cli­mate change

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The birth­place of a machine that could bring clean power to the devel­op­ing world and knock a tiny dent in global warm­ing looks like a junk­yard on the edge of a port.

Old ship­ping con­tain­ers and metal scraps crowd the West Berke­ley lot of All Power Labs. Pro­to­types of the company’s prod­ucts stand watch over the front gate like rusted crows. Stray cats patrol the grounds, includ­ing the drafty for­mer auto shop that the startup calls home.

That’s a few thou­sand dol­lars of bad deci­sions, there,” said Tom Price, All Power’s direc­tor of strate­gic ini­tia­tives, point­ing to a heap of dis­carded stain­less steel. He shrugs. “Make it, break it, fix it, repeat.”

That approach has pro­duced the Power Pal­let, a squat con­trap­tion that gen­er­ates elec­tric­ity from corn cobs, wood chips, coconut shells and other kinds of cheap, dense bio­mass. Although it costs $24,000 to $34,000, the Pal­let can churn out elec­tric­ity for less money than the diesel gen­er­a­tors that power busi­nesses across the devel­op­ing world, while cough­ing up less pollution.

And when used prop­erly, the Pal­let is “car­bon neg­a­tive,” pulling more heat-​​trapping car­bon diox­ide out of the atmos­phere than it pumps back in.

First, Burn­ing Man

Its very exis­tence is almost an acci­dent. Years ago, the tin­ker­ers who would even­tu­ally found All Power were using the lot off Ashby Avenue for other pur­poses — build­ing flame-​​throwing robots for Burn­ing Man. Berke­ley offi­cials objected and con­vinced Pacific Gas and Elec­tric Co. to cut the power. As a result, Jim Mason, All Power’s CEO, devel­oped a keen inter­est in gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity off the grid.

We got shut off and decided to hack cli­mate change,” Price said.

Now All Power has mor­phed into one of the Bay Area’s unlike­li­est exporters, installing 700 machines in more than 30 coun­tries world­wide. Its 30 employ­ees assem­ble one or two Pal­lets each week, all in Berkeley.

And All Power is one of a hand­ful of Amer­i­can com­pa­nies dis­play­ing their prod­ucts at this week’s inter­na­tional cli­mate con­fer­ence in Paris. The long-​​awaited meet­ing to ham­mer out an agree­ment on global warm­ing will include an expo of emission-​​cutting tech­nolo­gies, includ­ing the Pallet.

We can pave the planet with solar pan­els, and it won’t reverse cli­mate change,” said Price, who plans to fly straight from Paris to Liberia for the company’s next instal­la­tion. “We need to take the car­bon out of the atmosphere.”

Con­fer­ence del­e­gates com­mit­ted to the fight against warm­ing may prove a more recep­tive audi­ence than Bay Area ven­ture capitalists.

VCs not buying

Since it incor­po­rated in 2008, All Power has sur­vived almost entirely on its founders’ money, plus Pal­let sales. Total fund­ing has been in the ball­park of $2 mil­lion, Price said. Now, the com­pany is try­ing to raise its first $5 mil­lion round of financ­ing from VCs, who like big returns, pre­fer soft­ware to hard­ware and yearn to find the next Uber.

They’ll say, ‘Let me get this straight: You want to build a machine, in Berke­ley, and ship it across the world, to poor peo­ple? Good luck with that,’” Price said.

The Pal­let uses gasi­fi­ca­tion, a process more than a cen­tury old, that sub­jects carbon-​​rich organic mate­r­ial to high heat with lim­ited oxy­gen. Price likens it to light­ing some­thing on fire, then chok­ing off the air.

The heated mate­r­ial gives off burn­able gases that the Pal­let feeds into a four-​​cylinder engine to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity. What’s left of the orig­i­nal mate­r­ial becomes biochar, which can be mixed into soil as fertilizer.

That waste prod­uct — biochar — is how the Pal­let achieves carbon-​​negative sta­tus. The plants that pro­duce fuel for the Pal­let suck car­bon diox­ide out of the atmos­phere. Super-​​heating that fuel within the machine releases most of the car­bon, but not all of it. Between 5 and 10 per­cent stays in the biochar. Mix the biochar into a farm field, and the car­bon gets locked away, out of the atmosphere.

One Pal­let installed in Uganda illus­trates the cycle. It sup­plies elec­tric­ity to a flour mill for maize farm­ers. Their left­over cobbs, in turn, sup­ply the Pallet’s fuel. The biochar serves as fertilizer.

Many com­pa­nies have focused on pow­er­ing the devel­op­ing world with solar.

San Francisco’s d.light, for exam­ple, sells solar-​​powered lamps in Africa and Asia. But d.light focuses on indi­vid­ual house­holds and small busi­nesses, many of which have not had electricity.

It is one of the huge energy suc­cess sto­ries at the indi­vid­ual level, but it’s hard to make that scale,” said Dan Kam­men, head of UC Berkeley’s Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Laboratory.

In con­trast, the larger busi­nesses and schools tar­geted by All Power need more juice, and they already have ways of get­ting it — typ­i­cally, a diesel gen­er­a­tor. Depen­dent on highly vari­able prices for fuel, they tend to pro­duce elec­tric­ity for 40 to 70 cents per kilowatt-​​hour in Africa, accord­ing to Price. The Power Pal­let can gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity at 10 cents per kilowatt-​​hour.

Big back­ers

Kam­men, who also used to serve as the World Bank’s renew­able energy czar, saw enough promise in All Power’s tech­nol­ogy and eco­nom­ics that he joined the company’s board this year. So did Tom Din­woodie, a pio­neer of the Bay Area’s clean-​​tech indus­try who founded solar com­pany Pow­erLight Corp. in Berke­ley 25 years ago.

We have a bil­lion and a half peo­ple in the world with no elec­tric­ity and maybe even more rely­ing on diesel gen­er­a­tors, so it’s a huge poten­tial upside,” Kam­men said. “With­out what All Power’s got — real units being shipped every week, and dif­fer­ent ver­sions out there in the field — it’s really hard to fig­ure out what’s going to work.”

David R. Baker is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. E-​​mail: dbaker@​sfchronicle.​com Twit­ter: @DavidBakerSF

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