NEWS Meet the Berkeley burners trying to hack climate change

Meet the Berke­ley burn­ers try­ing to hack cli­mate change

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 8.31.01 AM

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

Browse News

Main Menu

Energy & Resources Group
310 Barrows Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
Phone: (510) 642-1640
Fax: (510) 642-1085


  • Open the Main Menu
  • People at RAEL

  • Open the Main Menu