The Human-Powered Home { Excerpt }

For many of us the question arose during a long stint on an exercise bike or treadmill. Sweating, straining, generating heat, we felt our bodies as engines. Yet the engine’s output was wasted. Surely our effort was worth something! What if we could direct it toward a useful purpose, such as generating electricity, blending a smoothie, or turning a piece of wood? Besides keeping us fit, wouldn’t it also help to reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels?

Most of us probably didn’t follow the idea beyond supposition. If we’d made the calculations we would have discovered that the maximum power we could generate during our 1-hour workout would equal about one penny’s worth of electricity, or the same potential that’s in roughly 2 teaspoons of gasoline. We might have given up on the idea of human-powering our TV or blender. As it can’t save much money or greatly reduce fossil fuel emissions, why bother?

The answer, given the enthusiasm of the dozens of human-power inventors and fans I’ve interviewed, centers on one vital notion: empowerment. People like Rob Roy, who pedal-powers his home’s water pump, aren’t beholden to the electric company. If the power goes out in Rob’s area, he can still fill his water tank, and his family can still bathe and drink from the tap. Anne Kusilek, who operates a quilt finishing business using only treadle sewing machines, continues working and doesn’t even notice when her home loses power. The band Shake Your Peace toured Utah on bikes and used pedal-powered amplifiers, freeing themselves of engines and extension cords. Human power is portable and available on demand. No matter how small the output, it’s empowering to discover how much we can do without the utility company, or the noisy, smelly motor, or the plug.

Also striking was the number of people who described the unique connection to their processes or products that resulted from using human power. For instance, a chef realized that he could better gauge the quality of his chutneys and sauces when he mixed them in a bike-powered blender, because he could sense their thickness from the resistance to his pedaling. The same goes for Frederick Breeden of Just Soap, who mixes soaps and salves in a large bicycle-powered blender. He told me if the soap is mixed too long, it will be spoiled, and as long as he’s pedal-powering a batch he can feel when it’s time to stop. An electric machine wouldn’t offer such control. Similarly, a potter told me he never used motorized wheels because he valued the way that operating a kick wheel connected him to the pot he was throwing.

Using human power, our exertion makes visceral what we take for granted from the grid. It raises our awareness. Some science museum exhibits allow visitors to pedal-power a 60-watt incandescent light bulb. Feeling what an effort this takes teaches us that real work — by something, somewhere — has occurred to light our rooms when we flip the switch.