By Adam Boesel
After the Paris Climate Agreement, we’re all wondering what comes next. We will need to make changes, maybe even sacrifices. But which ones, and where?
I certainly don’t have most of those answers, but I do know this:
People all over the world, especially in developed nations like the USA, need to learn the value of a watt.
A watt is a little bit of electric power. Most people know that. But how much power is it?
An ounce of water is easy to understand. Pour an ounce of water into a cup and you can compare it to a gallon of water, a tub full of water, a pool, river, lake, ocean, etc.
But a watt of electricity is more abstract. They are in our houses, but we never see them. How many watts does a TV use? How about a coffee maker? Refrigerator? Clothes dryer?
How many watts can a human create if they are pedaling a bicycle generator? Enough to power a light? A TV? A home? For how long?
In my experience, almost everyone has no idea. Some engineers know the laws of physics and electronics, so they know what generators can and can’t do. But they have no experience with actual people exercising, and what level of effort they can sustain for more than a couple minutes.
Many more people have a basic idea of how many human watts they can create on a bicycle or gym equipment, but not how that translates to watts of electricity, or what devices in their home could actually be powered by their efforts.
It’s been an incredible challenge to explain these basic concepts to people over the years. Far more challenging than developing the equipment.
With the recent Paris Climate Agreement, and the continued interest in human power by wealthy individuals and governments, I see an opportunity to help dispel the myths and create a foundation for understanding that will help us all understand how a world where we use less energy will work.
But we have a long way to go. The most recent example:
When a Billionaire Philanthropist Decides to Take Over Your Niche
On October 6, 2015, I got an email from Jason Kraft at Electric Bike Technologies with a link for an article that just came out about a billionaire who was developing a bike generator to power the world. My first reaction was, “This is going to be interesting for my business.” I had been working for several years on pretty much the exact thing this billionaire was now spending millions of dollars to develop.
The article started with a full width picture of a guy sitting on a recumbent cycle with a very large flywheel in what appeared to be a lab, with the caption, “Manoj Bhargava, creator of the 5-hour Energy drink, demonstrates his Free Electric bike. By pedaling for one hour, he says, a person can power a home’s lights and basic appliances for an entire day.”
“Uh oh,” I thought to myself.
As I read the article and watched the video, I had mixed feelings. I was excited to see someone with considerable reach and funding would be interested in spreading the word about the viability of human power (something I have been doing on a much smaller scale since 2007). I was also very encouraged to see he was focused on providing power to those in the world who still don’t have it.
I also was concerned. The biggest challenge I have faced since 2007 (when I created my first pedal generator on an old spin bike in my Seattle personal training studio) has always been the disappointment people experience when they are faced with the hard truth that their pedaling is not going to power their entire home.
It’s a lot like finding out you’ll need to do a lot more than join a gym and show up a couple times a week to actually lose 30 pounds and get “toned.”
Three important statements hit me as I read the article and video, because I knew they were going to be problematic:
- Riders of this bike will create enough electricity in an hour to power a home for 24 hours.
- 10,000 bikes will be made and tested in the next year in India
- The bikes will cost $100 each to make
“Awww, SHIT!” I thought to myself. Now people are going to expect a $100 bike that will power their home, in the USA, for the whole day, on only one hour of pedaling!
And that’s exactly what has happened. Traffic to my website has doubled since October 6. I get about 20,000 page views a month now, and rising. But people are emailing me asking me why my product, the UpCycle Ecocharger, costs so much (about $1100). They are asking how it compares to the Free Electric Bike. And they are trying to figure out how it could be improved upon to make more electricity.
A Dose of Reality
People long before Manoj Bhargava have been experimenting with making electricity with human power, and it makes for a great story. It usually goes like this:
- An article about human power comes out with a misleading headline like, “Are We Heading for a Human Powered Future?”
- The article is about some interesting experimental ways people are using human activity to generate small amounts of electricity. Examples are dance floors, wearable generators, soccer balls, and gym equipment. Sometimes there are outrageous claims of what is being done, but usually it’s people (like me) who are saying this might be a small way to harvest some energy and make the world a better place through engagement and activity.
- The comments thread will feature the extreme ends of the spectrum. “This is a game changer! Where can I buy it?” or “Do the math, this is impossible!”
The truth is somewhere in between. Human power, simply put, will never “power the world.” It will never “pay itself back” like wind or solar can. But the idea of using our energy instead of wasting it is a good one, and a lot of great progress can come from it. For example, there is nothing more engaging and educational than the experience of finding out what it takes to power a TV (130W for my 50” LED TV).
But let’s get real here folks:
- The homes he’s talking about powering in India currently have NO ELECTRICITY. If his cycles can now charge up a few phones and LED lights, that would be a huge improvement.
- $100 in India goes about as far as $500 in the USA. For example, a bicycle in the USA that costs about $300 would cost about $60 in India. Building a pedal generator for $500 that sells for $1000 is more realistic for US consumers.
- According to the US Energy Information Administration, a home in the USA uses an average of about 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity each day. Saying a person in the USA could power their home all day by pedaling a $100 bike for an hour is like saying there’s a Tesla coming out next year that will cost $10,000 and go 1000 miles on a five minute charge.
So is it worth it?
If you can’t power your home by pedaling, should you even care or try?
I say YES and here’s why:
- It might not be much to you, but supplying 25 watt hours to a home with no electricity, where they use fire or kerosene for light, and have to send their phone to the city every couple days to charge up? That’s life altering. That means they can communicate with the world and have all the information available to humankind also available to them through a smartphone. It means they can use an LED light to do things at night and not have to worry about their home burning down, or getting a headache after 30 minutes from the kerosene fumes. Those fuels cost too, in more than just money. This is a big deal. And I’m not just saying this. There are companies and people who are already doing this work. Nuruenergy.com is a great example. I have been in conversations with people from many different countries where something like this is a legitimate need. The challenge is how to get it to them affordably. With economies of scale and manufacturing, support of governments, etc., it’s possible. Every step (or pedal revolution) toward this reality is helping the world become a better place.
- For us in the USA and other first world countries where we take energy for granted, you can experience the true value of the energy you use, and the energy you need to live your life. Your children can learn it too. Start them at an early age, and they will have a completely different understanding of the need for energy conservation and for innovations in energy creation and use. They will be able to lead from a position of knowledge and understanding rather than ignorance and wishing for the laws of physics to be different than they are.
Keeping an eye on the prize
If you were hoping to power your USA home for a day on an hour of pedaling, then you are probably feeling pretty discouraged right now.
But if we are going to someday get our energy usage in line with what is possible, the goal here should be to keep innovating and learning.
When I first started this process and made my first bike generator, I hoped a 1 kilowatt pedal generator could be achieved by “gearing it up,” getting a more efficient generator, being grid-tied instead of going into a battery, and through just “I can figure it out” good old American foolishness and ingenuity. I looked at what I had already built and thought, “There’s got to be a way to make this 10 times better.”
I made it 3 to 4 times more efficient, going from 30-50 watts to 100 to 150 watts at a steady, brisk pace. Not too shabby.
I also had a goal to start up gyms that generated all of their electricity needs through the exercise of the members.
That didn’t happen – not even close. But I did create a gym that generated 35% of its energy needs using mostly solar and some human power. More importantly, through an energy saving culture, the gym used about 85% less electricity per square foot than normally run gyms, with no sacrifices to the member experience. Our 3000 square foot gym was getting by on about 20 kilowatt-hours per day, about the same as the average US apartment.
Reducing the energy usage of a gym by 85%, mostly through common sense practices that could easily be implemented in any gym tomorrow. That feels like success to me.
Those changes wouldn’t have been possible if I would have “done the math” and quit right there. We have to keep trying.
When fossil fuels run out, they will not be replenished for a long, long time. Today, we use more energy than we can sustainably produce, and it’s creating some serious environmental problems.
We must spend money and time innovating and trying new things.
Human power is a tiny, tiny slice of a very large pie. It won’t power the world, but it may go further in helping people truly understand what must be done than any other initiative.
We can’t just look at something for a few minutes, decide it’s “not worth it,” and move on. We must dig deep into every possible solution and find ways to make them work.
We should start by learning the value of a watt.
Doing the Math:
This is a fantastic video showing just how much power an elite cyclist can really create:
As I watch that video, knowing what I do from experience and working with so many people riding pedal generators in a gym and at events, it’s a realistic depiction of how pedal power to electricity works. But the comments on the video show that the majority really want it to be possible to create so much more electricity. The comments talk about improving the efficiency of the system somehow, and pick apart the video as if it were edited to produce a false outcome.
The truth is, a world champion cyclist spent a couple minutes on a the most efficient piece of transportation ever made (a bicycle) with a flywheel to help keep the inertia going smoothly, and generated 21 watt hours before he had to stop and lay on the ground.
Also very important to note: This was actual electric watts going direct to the toaster. The watts people mostly think about when they are talking about cyclists in the Tour de France for example, are not the same watts as electric watts.
The watts a human produces is reduced as it turns into electrical watts, because some of the energy is lost through friction and other processes.
From the legs to the pedals to the crank to the chain to the flywheel to the generator, to the toaster (or any appliance), there are going to be losses.
So, when Lance Armstrong put out an average of 495 watts going up the Alp de Huez for less than a half hour (Source: http://sportsscientists.com/2009/07/tour-de-france-2009-power-estimates/), those 495 average human watts would not translate to 495 electrical watts. It would be less. How much less, I cannot say for sure. And how efficient the system can get is something we can work on, but it will never be 100% efficient.
The greatest loss in efficiency will be the fact that you are not Lance Armstrong during his prime, when he was doping.
Even the average cycling enthusiast is only at about 40% of a cycling pro’s output (around 170 human watts – not electrical).
So, when I pedal for thirty minutes at 100 electrical watts going straight back to the grid (creating 50 watt hours), I feel confident that I am on a system that is probably the most efficient possible for generating electricity. I can set the gears where I want to get the most efficient cadence for my body and fitness level. Could I keep up that pace for an hour? Yes I could if I were in great shape and doing it every day.
So let’s go ahead and set the REAL electrical power output at 100 watt hours in one hour and start thinking about things there. That would make my system about 60% efficient (if I can create 170 watts of human energy consistently for an hour, and I can create 100 watt hours of electricity during that time, then I am at 60% efficiency). If we got to 90% efficiency, I could create 153 watt hours in an hour. So that’s where we are. 150 watt hours.
My response to questions from my email list who were hoping to get something like the Free Electric bike from Manoj Bhargava:
As someone who has been working on human power generation since 2007, this article and the story behind it are both encouraging and frustrating. It’s very encouraging to know a billionaire is going to be spending money to help get electricity to people who never had it, because they will be able to charge their smartphones, giving them access to the world of information we all take for granted. Also, they will be able to provide clean light instead of fire or kerosene, both of which are very dangerous to individuals and the environment. If there is a way to help people in rural India get enough electricity to charge their smartphones and have some clean light at night, that is a great thing, and I very much respect the Billions in Change people for working on making that happen.
Funny coincidence – I just got off the phone with a company in India that is interested in carrying the UpCycle Ecocharger and I asked them about those claims.
They said the homes he is speaking of are in rural India and may have 1 smartphone and a few LED lights as the only electricity needs for their entire home. So you can see, if that is the case, then maybe an hour of pedaling would make enough electricity to power their home for 24 hours.
My 10 years of experience working on this technology and seeing thousands of people use it brings me to this conclusion: The limiting factor is the energy a human can put out consistently. There are very few people who can sustain an hour on a bike, let alone at a high level of output.
An hour of pedaling will charge a smartphone and keep a light or two on for a few hours. The limiting factor isn’t technology or efficiency, but human fitness and motivation. It just won’t ever happen in the USA based on the power needs of our homes.
The Chopper Charger, and the UpCycle Ecocharger, as well as all of the other equipment I have ever tested or used, generally lets me put out about 100 watts of grid-connected electricity (most efficient), or 75 watts of electricity going to a battery (not as efficient, because batteries can’t handle the same inputs as easily). This is an average for an hour. I am 200 pounds and in good shape. I have in the past been in excellent shape, and probably could add 30% to that number.
That is a really intense workout. More realistic for me, if I’m talking on the phone or reading, is half that.
So, if I were to create 130 watt hours in an hour, what would that power?
Well, my smartphone requires about 30 watt hours for a full charge.
My 50″ LED TV uses 114 watts.
So, I could charge my phone and watch TV for about 45 minutes on a very vigorous one-hour workout.
The next question would be: Is the Billions in Change bike more efficient than what I have been creating? And the answer I have for that is: based on what I have seen in the video and pictures, no. However, he is paying multiple engineers a lot of money to build a product, so I would guess that if he continues to research, he may eventually come up with a more efficient model.
But how much more efficient? Double? If so, then I am coming up with 130 watt hours times two, or 260 watt hours.
I highly doubt he can create a cycle twice as efficient. I would put the UpCycle Ecocharger and the Chopper Charger up against any other pedal generator I have ever seen for one important reason: The generator is in the hub of the wheel. That is as efficient, or more efficient than anything else except a generator in the actual pedal crank assembly or the pedal itself, because it is closer to the source of energy (you).
And this is why I’m excited about the Chopper Charger. The energy generation is a part of it, but the entire product is far more useful in many different ways. You can ride it as a normal bicycle. You can use it as an electric bike. And when you want to, or when needed (in an emergency), you can make electricity. Certainly enough to have some light and keep your phone, tablet, and laptop going.
Finally, here’s a video of a very fit guy pedaling as hard as he can for about 2 minutes at the Pan Am Games in the summer of 2015. He’s riding an UpCycle Ecocharger that Chevrolet used to demonstrate human power generation. He starts out strong, and then tails off quite a bit. This is the reality of human power generation. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s just reality.
Adam Boesel is the founder/CEO of The Green Microgym and inventor of the world’s first grid tied spin bike. Adam and his gym have been featured by CNN, BBC, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fitness Magazine, Club Industry and Club Solutions Magazines, Popular Science, and by countless green bloggers. He has worked with thousands of people since 2007, testing, measuring, and innovating on converting human effort into usable electricity. His invention, the UpCycle Ecocharger, set a Guinness world record at the 2015 Pan Am Games for the most people generating electricity in a week (4,739).
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