Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gigatons from the Sky

"Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.— Tom Price"


Orbiting Carbon Observatory

A decade ago the sprawling artist compound just off of Ashby Avenue in an industrial part of West Berkeley, Calif, was filled with flame-throwing robots, stacks of shipping containers and towering Burning Man-inspired sculptures. During my college years at the University of California, Berkeley, and for several years afterwards, the place — then called The Shipyard — was the stuff of legend, hosting shows where huge metal art machines battled each other, and organizing events titled things like How to Destroy the Universe Festival.

Today it’s the headquarters of All Power Labs, an energy startup that emerged out of the ashes of the collective as a way for engineer artist, and all-around-noncomformist Jim Mason to provide power for the compound after the city of Berkeley repeatedly turned off their electricity. “The city was not excited about our interpretation of the building code,” Mason recalled of the group’s offgrid beginnings last week during an interview in All Power Lab’s offices, which sit just above their open machining and fabrication workshops.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason, and Director of Infrastructure, Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front of the Power Pallet, in the headquarters of All Power Labs, Berkeley, Calif. Dog and mascot Dulie in the foreground.
Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason,
and Director of Infrastructure,
Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front
of the Power Pallet, at
the headquarters of All Power
Labs, in Berkeley, Calif.
Dog and mascot Dulie in
the foreground.



Instead of art machines, the place now produces machines that make distributed clean energy and are mostly shipped to the developing world. Over the past seven years, the group has been building devices called gasifiers that take plant waste (like walnut shells and wood chips) and turn it into electricity with a byproduct of biochar. It’s decades old technology — which was popular during World War II and is still used on a large industrial scale today — but Mason’s vision was to shrink down the tech to a personal scale, not just to run The Shipyard off the grid, but also to make it available to anyone who wanted to make it or buy it. 

Now after years of refining the systems, All Power Labs has shipped 500 products and employs 40 workers. The team — a combination of junkyard fabricators, university-trained engineers and solar industry execs — has been gaining momentum, transitioning from their early DIY days into what they hope is a stable and predictable product-oriented energy company.

The group reportedly generates upwards of five million dollars in revenue a year, has been awarded several recent patents around core technology, and last month won a $2 million grant from the California Energy Commission to build out a large gasifier in a shipping container that can turn the waste from fire-prevention forest thinning in the Sierra Nevada mountains into usable, on-demand, local electricity. The award still needs to be officially voted on and approved by the CEC.

This week the team officially brought on Cal-Berkeley energy expert Dan Kammen as a founding board member. Kamen described All Power Labs’ products to me as “very exciting as a technology and a systems solution.” While All Power Labs has long operated off of sales to support its growth, the company is now looking to take advantage of this recent momentum to raise funding to scale up and keeping refining its products.

All Power Labs' latest gasifier is large enough to fit in a shipping container, and the company is using a grant from the CEC to finish work on it.
All Power Labs’ latest large gasifier
fits in a shipping container, and
provides over 100 kW of power from plant waste.
The company is using a grant from the
CEC to finish development work on it.

 

A backwards evolution

 

It’s taken a good seven years for the team to get to where they are today. “This wasn’t the plan,” explains Mason, who has a degree in anthropology from Stanford, the mind of a mechanical engineer, a background working in open source online communities and the spirit of a Berkeley radical. All Power Lab’s Director of Strategic Intiatives, Tom Price — who has been an environmental manager at Burning Man and spent years working on community solar projects — describes the company’s evolution as “completely backwards.”

In the traditional Silicon Valley tech startup world, co-founders might build a prototype or a basic app and then start raising money from investors to build out and launch the product. In contrast All Power Labs has been entirely bootstrapped, and slowly meandered around to their current commercialization strategy. Their development has been as organic as the produce being sold across the street at the health food coop Berkeley Bowl.

Originally, Mason’s idea was to take the open source, participatory, and collaborative culture that they’d fostered in the art collective and at Burning Man, and bring it to energy. Mason looked to the personalized, layered, and meaning-filled relationships that humans have developed around resources like food and transportation in modern times (picture all the foodie movements and hot rod culture) and wondered if the same type of relationship could be fostered around energy generation and use.

An All Power Labs' gasifier being run in Liberia.
An All Power Labs’ gasifier being run in Liberia

Soon after the city shut off their power, Mason started reading about gasifiers via an old Swedish gasifier manual; Sweden has long been a world leader when it comes to converting waste into energy. Gasifiers use heat to transform plant waste into a gas similar to natural gas that can be used to run an engine and produce electricity. A basic gasifier is about as complex as a traditional wooden stove and can be assembled with simple tools like a hammer and wrench.

Gasifiers are also interesting from an environmental, and emissions perspective, because they can produce “carbon negative” energy. Plants and trees harvest carbon from the atmosphere, and when they are later put into a gasifier as waste, the remaining energy is extracted and the leftover byproduct is the carbon-based biochar, which can go back into the soil. As Price said, “Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.”

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

In the early days, and partly to cultivate the personal energy experience, All Power Labs made kits called Gasifier Experimenter Kits (GEKs), which were free CAD files that walked users through the steps of making the gasifiers from off the shelf parts. While the kits received a lot of attention from enthusiasts (many in the U.S.), even the early adopters sometimes found the notoriously tempermental tech difficult to get up and running and operating for substantial periods of time.




Over the course of several years, the team slowly decided they wanted to provide a product that was much easier for their customers to use, instead of just providing them the means to create the technology. All Power Labs also started to get an increasing amount of interest from local entrepreneurs in developing areas in Africa and Asia that needed low cost, off-grid power to run their businesses, had access to abundant biomass (many operated in agriculture regions) and wanted to replace their expensive and dirty diesel generators with something else.

Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube, a mobile gasifier.
Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives
at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube,
a mobile gasifier.


All Power Labs no longer sells these kits and the tech has evolved into the company’s three current gasifier products. The first is the company’s staple, the Power Pallet, which produces 15 kW to 18 kW of power, fits in the bed of a truck, costs $30,000 or $1.50 per watt, and represents the bulk of the shipments.

All Power Labs now has Power Pallets operating in 40 countries, including in Liberia using old rubber trees, the Philippines using coconut shells, and in Haiti, gasifying corn cobs. They had to temporarily halt their on-the-ground work in Liberia when Ebola hit.

At that $1.50 per watt price point, a customer that buys a Power Pallet to replace a generator and diesel fuel can recover their costs in 15 months, Price said. That price also significantly beats the cost to install solar panels, which can cost $2.27 a watt for large rooftop solar systems for companies and organizations, and $3.60 a watt for residential systems, according to GTM Research. And unlike a solar panel, the Power Pallet can run around the clock, whenever it’s got plant waste to gasify.

All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.
All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.

All Power Systems has two other products in the works. There’s the Power Cube, a regulation compliant version of the Power Pallet for the European market that is just starting to go into production. And there’s the Powertainer, which is the larger, 100 kW unit that the company is working on with the CEC grant, and which isn’t yet on sale publicly (they’re shooting for 2016).

Despite the fact that the tech is centuries old, All Power Labs is still able to claim at least three patents for new gasifier innovations. Price said that they’re also using state of the art materials like cast in place ceramics in the reactor, and the electronic brain of the systems — which use Arduino sensors — are utilizing the latest in electronics, helping the gasifiers bypass many of the messy problems that plague older systems.

Gasifiers, in general, are messy systems, and produce tar, a dirty pollutant. They also can be very temperamental, which is one of the reasons why the technology hasn’t taken off on a broader scale. In addition to those two hurdles, the lifetime of the systems are dependent on how often the owner runs them; the basic four cylinder engine in the Power Pallet might need to be replaced after two years.

 

What’s next?

 

A Power Pallet operating in Uganda.
A Power Pallet operating in Uganda

It could be difficult for All Power Labs to raise funds from traditional venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Many of the larger firms that were once aggressive on cleantech have now moved away from new investments. The firms that are continuing to invest in energy now tend to take a lighter approach, opting to support digital energy focused startups that might require less capital to scale.

But there’s a growing amount of money being invested in clean energy in general in the world (much of it in solar projects and offshore wind), and there’s still some money for equity in early stage technology, though much of it is coming from outside the Valley. Corporations, like Shell, Siemens and GE, are looking to make energy investments as part of their corporate R&D strategy. And more family offices are willing to support energy startups that have a triple bottom line.

The Altaeros, high altitude wind turbine.
Altaeros’ high altitude wind turbine, which Softbank invested in.
Some of the deeper investor pockets can be found in Asia. For example, telecom giant Softbank has a new fund to invest in early energy generation and storage technologies that can be implemented in Japan and Asia. Japan is struggling to remake its energy generation mix after the nuclear disaster.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has backed some of the harder to fund startups out there. Some startups have been able to scale dramatically with funding in China, like Boston Power, LanzaTech and EcoMotors.

And there’s still some funding in the Valley for big energy ideas. Cleantech heavyweights Nancy Pfund and Ira Ehrenpreis have teamed up at DBL Investors for a new fund. Groups like Other Lab and M37 are testing out new models around developing energy innovation that are part government lab, part corporate lab and part Valley incubator. And perhaps the few VC-backed energy companies that have done well, like Tesla and SolarCity, will help produce the next-generation of entrepreneurial energy investors willing to make bigger, and smarter, risks in new energy startups.

I do wonder how the team at All Power Labs would feel at the end of the day about joining up with the sometimes slick, and always-optimizing, investors of Silicon Valley, or even investors outside the Valley. It would help them reach another of level of efficiency and growth, but it could also mean giving up some of their core tenets and lifestyle.

But whatever happens to the group going forward, they have the enthusiasm, momentum, and innovative thinking rarely seen in such an organically-emerging startup. And if their gasifiers are ever able to reach any substantial scale, they could have a profound effect on the emergence of off-grid power in the places that need it most.

This open source blog post by originally appeared in Gigaom on 4 Feb 2015.


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