Life on a shoestring: Part II — Pedal for your Power

We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles. — Thomas Edison

I recall going to a science centre as a child and seeing a stationary bike hooked up to a generator and lightbulb. Museum patrons could do a bit of cycling and watch as the light burned brightly. Nowadays, cycling powers exercise bikes’ onboard computers and “regular” bikes can be hooked up to generators at the cost of a few hundred dollars. Now, before I continue, I must stress that the thought experiment proposed should remain as such — a thought experiment — and no more. It would likely fail on both an economic and environmental basis in the context discussed.

Consider a hypothetical “pedal for power” policy for office-workers: suppose electrical outlets in your office were rewired so that the only power supplied was that which you yourself had generated by cycling in the “generator room”1. How would that affect your behaviour considering that an average person can put out about 150W with moderate effort?

Device Approx. running time per hour of cycling
iPad 60 hours
13″ MacBook Air 30 hours
Asus Netbook 20 hours
Typical laptop One work day (8 hours)
Typical desktop computer + 20″ LCD monitor 1 hour
Workstation with high-end GPU 15 minutes

Would you keep your behaviour the same by cycling a sufficient amount to cover your electricity budget? Or perhaps you’d cut down on the amount of time you’d spend in front of your computer. Or maybe a less powerful (or more energy efficient) machine looks much more palatable.

Personally, I’d be more than happy to cycle for three hours a week, which would more than cover the power used by my MacBook Air (I have an older, less-efficient model) and the pair of 32-watt F32T8 lightbulbs over my head — at least for the hour or so each day during winters where I would actually like them on. But more on this last point some other time.

  1. That beats the “debugging room” hands down. []

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