The Body Electric

By Adrian Bennett

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

“Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings                                                                          of my or your body, or of any one’s body, male or female.”                                                              –Walt Whitman 

As America’s poet of the senses, Walt Whitman praised the human body—the power source that has raised our homes and cities and provided the sweat equity for most impressive ventures–our bridges, tunnels, and dams.

The body was the measure of work until the industrial revolution. Yet since we’ve mechanized our labor, turning it over to turbines, earthmovers, combines, augers, engines, electric motors, solar panels, nuclear fission, and natural gas, we no longer have any real notion of the effort it takes to actually power up our homes.

We talk about green solutions and less fossil fuel dependency. But what about questioning the “why,” not just the how?  Nothing grounds this conversation like an understanding of the amount of energy we generate on a bike. 

The Ingenuity of Developing Countries

The bicycle has been used effectively in some developing countries, sometimes in combination with a miniature solar setup, to power  relatively low-load appliances including, 

  • Computers and cell phones (any USB rechargeable devices)
  • LED lights
  • Small Fans                                                                                                                                                           

Pedal power is converted to electricity through a generator. It should be noted that the best use of a bicycle is to replace an electric motor, completely de-electrifying a system.

This approach can be used to power high load tasks like tumble cycles on a washing machine, and certain household pumps. 

For my readers who are into this stuff: Power delivery gets better when the system is designed for a specific task. (You will have much greater efficiency using a gear-driven, weighted flywheel to spin your laundry than you will by rigging it up directly to a stationary bike.) 

Countries where power is scarce are adapting their bikes like crazy.  Rural Rwandan communities use pedal power to light homes off the grid, showing that human power is one of the cheapest and simplest ways to light up a house when you have no other options.

The “Free Electric” bike, a project of the 5-hour Energy Drink CEO, Manoj Bhargava, takes this a step further. The bike is optimized for more efficient conversion using weighted flywheels to amplify human pedaling. This is far cheaper than any kind of solar, wind, or geothermal infrastructure, and you can produce instant power, with no pollution. Learn more below about this hybrid bike that you can pedal for an hour – and get electricity all day and night.

Yes, people in developing areas are learning how to be energy-efficent, and self-sufficient.  By comparison, the average American lifestyle requires a staggering amount of power. Adam Frank sums this up well on NPR’s All Things Considered: “The energy running into our homes from some distant power stations is the equivalent to having about 40 people pedaling for us 24/7.” 

What We Can Do

I’m not saying we should pedal our lives away to light our sprawling homes.  I’m saying that we need to rethink the amount of energy we consume—and what kind of power use is sustainable down the road.

To achieve a truly renewable existence, it is reasonable to turn to wind and solar power.  Yet  “Green” technology alone will not be enough. Lifestyle changes will be called for.  So the question is, How much power do we really need?

Some electrical needs are non-negotiable, especially in the digital age. My smartphone and tablet, for example.  I can easily charge these from a dynamo in a bike’s wheel hub. No flywheel needed, no special configuration called for.

I can ride to the store and charge my phone simultaneously. Thinking about what I can power with my own legs also forces me to consider what’s essential and what’s a luxury.

In the more temperate parts of the US, all we need are lights, cell phones, and internet devices to carry on more or less as usual.

High load appliances fall into the self-indulgent category.  Among the biggest drains in my life is the window air conditioner, which operates at over 500 watts, continuously. Running this for two hours draws one kilowatt-hour from the electrical grid. An electric toaster uses over 500 watts as well, and hough it won’t be run for hours, it adds up. A commercial grade shop fan, or a large blower fan used in HVAC systems, can also consume over 500 watts and rack up the same kind of energy use as the window unit.

A kilowatt hour refers to 1000 watts, for one hour, continuously. There are few people on this planet who can produce over 1000 watts on a bicycle for more than a few seconds.

In 2018, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,972 kilowatt hours (kWh), an average of about 914 kWh per month. At the human scale, that is a nearly unfathomable amount of work.

I’ve ridden 600 kilometers on a bicycle without sleep in under 30 hours, raced up mountains, and worked repairing an urban bike share fleet. I know what kind of energy a body can produce so I will tell you this: There’s no way I can produce enough energy to cool my bedroom and my study and get me a week’s worth of toasted bagels

Photo by Bob Jansen on Unsplash

In 2015, Tour de France Winner Bradley Wiggins rode at 440 watts for one hour on a track to set the Bicycle Hour Record for distance travelled. Fewer than 500 watts an hour represents the pinnacle ability of an elite athlete putting in one of the hardest efforts of his life.

Other appliances we can’t begin to power with our legs include:

  • Large blower Fans
  • Refrigerators
  • Fully-electric Washing Machines
  • Electric Ovens
  • Water heaters
  • Large Televisions and Sound Systems                                                                                                           

The best solution I’ve found for these: To “slap glass,” i.e. install residential solar panels, and let these plastic leaves (faux-to synthesizers) do the job, getting us closer to energy self-sufficiency.

Get on Your Bike and Off the Grid

In 2019, Americans used 539.4 million short tons of coal to power up their homes. By my calculations that’s one quadrillion and seventy-eight trillion pounds of an unrenewable resource.  What’s that look like at the local level?  Here’s a description of the Allen S. King generating plant in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota:

The plant’s cyclone boiler burns up to 300 tons of coal an hour—about 2 ½ railroad carloads. A mile long, 600 ton-per-hour capacity conveyor system several stories high, moves fuel from the coal yard to hoppers in the main building. 

Over the next ten years, most power companies plan to cut back on coal, switching to wind, solar and nuclear power. But in the meantime, we could make things a bit simpler by using way less electricity and learning how to generate our own.

I’m not advocating a return to the age of the Luddites or the homesteaders. I’m saying it’s time to take this on from all angles. Adopt renewable energy. Use less.  And finally, do something constructive with all those watts we squander at the gym.

Think about the amount of energy we could harvest from a single spin class.  Contemplate the pleasant routine of running a water pump or laundry spin cycle with a few minutes on your stationary bike at home. 

No more sitting on the sofa and asking Alexa to dim the lights, play music, change the channel.  Make home a place you power up yourself!

When we start thinking this way, it won’t be that hard to make our houses self-sufficient.  Yes, we can also get rid of high-voltage lines where power can arc to the trees and start local wildfires, as happened with deadly results in California.

From where I sit, the electrical grid is a thirsty, overloaded behemoth. But imagine being your own power “grid,” getting instant juice in a blackout, and doing away with the monthly electric bill. It sounds downright convenient.

Photo by mythicalstateof.com

Adrian Bennett is a long distance cyclist and a cycling coach with Wenzel Coaching. His goal is to build a house that’s self-sufficient and off the power grid.

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