Monday, September 24, 2007

Alternative Energy Sources

I've been corresponding with a friend in the Washington, D.C. area about setting up a non-profit oriented toward alternative energy sources such as solar. Although there are a lot of sources out there for energy information, not everyone knows how to get started. I'll post more about this as we make progress in our planning and are ready to go public with the organization.

In the meantime, a local friend has just blogged about the wild and crazy idea of bicyclists storing up electrical energy generated while riding and then selling that energy at a depot or energy station, with the accumulated juice going back into the local electrical grid. I think that this is a great idea. There are already some home-made electricity generators based on stationary bikes and some cell-phone chargers hooked up to bikes. Think about the possibility of having cheap electricity generated by thousands of people and making that electricity available to the community to reduce demands on fossil fuels. Think further about that idea being applied in a developing country where the electricity powers local industry, raising the country's per capita income in a sustainable economy!


Heather and Martin said...

Hi there - I saw your comment about this on the NIM blog today. I think it's great that you're trying to do something about renewable energy. You might like to read a book about this that I've recently come across. It's called "Without Hot Air", it's by a British physicist, and it's available as a free e-book at He's basically gone through all the currently known sources of renewable energy and calculated their potential capacity, and stacked that up against the energy useage of people in the West. You could use his book to find out which would be the most effective forms of renewable energy for you to look into promoting, or, depending on your skills, which ones need the most development and work on that. It makes sense to me to bring on the biggest sources of renewables first and the more niche ones later. His conclusion is that there isn't enough renewable energy out there for everyone in the world to use energy like a Westener, so we need to work on reducing consumption, not just bringing renewables on stream, so this is another thing you could look into.

There may also be groups in your area who are already working in some of these areas, so it could be a more efficient use of your energy to work with these existing groups rather than start your own thing.

Bob Uva said...

Heather and Martin,

Thanks very much for the recommendation on the Without Hot Air book. I will check it out as I do need to learn more about the various sources of renewable energy. And you are correct: consumption is also very important. I think the concept of one's ecological footprint should be something understand across the globe.

Greg said...

I think that the idea of using human power for electricity generation has limited application. Certainly, in areas where there is no existing power grid, it would be a good way of generating small amounts of electricity useful for purposes such as charging batteries for small electronic appliances. But for "modern" societies with existing electricity production and distribution systems, I think it would be a poor idea.

The reality is that a human is not a particularly efficient producer of mechanical power. In fact, I think the efficiency level is something like 25% which means that we need to consume (eat) 4 times as much energy as we can then produce with our muscles. Making matters worse is that converting muscle power to electricity is also far from 100% efficient and we'd probably see another 50% loss. Meaning, we'd need to consume 8 times as much energy as we're producing as electricity. Now, if I have some weight I wish to lose, it could be fun to convert my excess flab to electricity via pedaling, but once I've burned my personal excess stores of energy (i.e. my fat), I would need to start eating more to power my pedaling. The current system of production and distribution of food is tremendously inefficient and even though the basis of food's caloric energy might be solar, there is still a huge amount of external energy required. And, we haven't touched on the issues of energy required to make the small generators and batteries. Further, all of the above is based on the idea of a stationary bike - if we are actually moving ourselves and a bike from point to point then the efficiency in terms of electricity generation would take another huge hit (because most of the energy would be spend moving our mass)... Basically, this is an example of TANSTAAFL. While humans and animals are certainly amazing machines, they too must obey the basic laws of physics. So the end result is that it would take more energy to produce electricity via human pedaling than it does via standard production techniques (generally burning stuff). Sadly, I think we'd be better off just plugging our chargers into the wall socket...

However, it certainly is a fun idea and it might be a great way for people to learn about energy production and highlight many of the issues we are facing when considering how to move to "alternative" sources. At a minimum, after generating a couple hundred watt hours by pedaling, I'm sure people would be vastly more sympathetic to the concept of energy conservation :)

Kilong Ung said...

hi greg. i don't know if you have read . the key to this is the deposit/discharge station. imagine if everyone around the world turns in an alumnum can, how much alumnum would the world has recycled? there is plenty of motivation for bicyclists to participate. they bike anyway. they can motivate other people to bike to get healthy, make a bit of money (hopefully donate to my good causes) and contribute to the energy resource. i wouldn't under estimate the concerted amount of energy bicyclists can generate. i am a simple man, so instead of recommending our readers to read sophisticated books on renewable energy, i recommend "Horton Hears a Who!". one Who may not be significant, but million and billion of Whos can make a difference.

Greg said...

Hi Kilong,

Thanks for the link.

I think I came across as a bit to negative in my previous comment...

I completely agree with your idea that the efforts of billions of individuals worldwide will be what is needed to solve this problem of petroleum dependence. I am a fervent proponent of biking as an alternative to driving and as a wonderful form of recreation and exercise. In most cases, using a bicycle for transportation is vastly more energy efficient than driving a car. Not only is it more energy efficient but it is a great way to save money, have fun, and keep in shape. It will be a far, far better world once we are all using our bikes to get to work and to do our shopping, etc.

However, there is a simple reality that generating electricity via human muscle power is simply not as efficient as mechanized means. If I were to hook a generator to my bike and pedal very vigorously for an hour, I would probably generate less than 250 watt hours of electricty. That's about two and half *cents* worth of electricty for the entire hour. It will cost me more in food to replace the energy I lost during that hour, and as I noted previously, the energy required to provide that food will exceed the 250 watt hours I generated. There would be no saving of energy...

I heartily agree that we can't underestimate the "power" of the masses in terms of summing small individual efforts into a tremendous overall result. Still, I think we must be realistic as to where those efforts will have a true and meaningful effect.

Kilong Ung said...

Hi Greg,

Thank you for your respond. I have responded to your last comment. However, I decided to post the comment at my blog where the original discussion started so that I don't lose the context of our discussion. I put a link for you to conveniently return to Bob's blog.

Please read my responded comment here:

Thank you.

Kilong Ung |
Leverage the past, ameliorate the present, shape the future and leave a legacy.