Pedal-Electric: Power from the People

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The (admittedly awesome) ability to power your whole home with a pedal-powered generator isn’t feasible…yet. But with a surge of interest related to climate change, and recent investments in battery and energy recapture technologies, we’re entering an exciting phase in the advancement of pedal electric transportation, more commonly known as human-powered vehicles (HPVs). 

For those of us who are newer to this converging point between high-performance, sustainable engineering, and carbon-neutrality, here’s a little primer on how pedal-electric power came to be, and why it matters.

Pedal Power – An Oldie But Goodie

Like many smart, simple ideas, the idea of generating power through human-assisted rotary motion has been around for a long time. Low Tech Magazine’s Kris De Decker provides a comprehensive overview of pedal electric innovations, which really hit their stride late in the 19th century. 

Yes, folks around the globe were harnessing the benefits of rotary motion long before pedal power had its first true moment in the spotlight. But the introduction of chains and sprockets of different sizes allowed a much greater mechanical advantage than pedals and cranks alone could provide. 

This greater mechanical advantage, in turn, introduced pedal power to a more diverse array of applications, including lathes and saws, tool sharpeners, and drilling machines (including at least one dental drill in the late 19th century, though the lack of any further attempts in dentistry is, perhaps, telling).

Pictured: Yikes…

While the variety of applications for pedal power was important, so was its net-positive impact on the toll of human-powered labor.

In the Low Tech piece, De Decker notes:

“The historical importance of pedal powered machines can be easily overlooked by people who grew accustomed to fossil fuels and ubiquitous electricity. Therefore, it cannot be stressed enough how much of an improvement pedal power was in the light of thousands of years of human drudgery. Pedals and cranks make use of human power in a near-optimum way.”

But despite chains and sprockets (in addition to our legs) helping us realize a near-optimum way to power small machines, pedal power’s next obvious application would hit a significant snag.

Home of the Future?

As stated in our intro, the idea of powering an entire home by pedaling is, well, appealing (ESPECIALLY if you have kids). And, at roughly the same time pedal power was enjoying its surge in popularity, the Edison Electric Illumination company was changing the way families looked to power their homes. While progress was slow, by 1925 roughly half of American homes were powered by electricity.

So, why didn’t powering homes by pedal naturally come along for the ride?

Because pedal power gets more complicated when electricity enters the equation. Despite all the technological leaps and bounds we’ve made since some poor someone visited the world’s first and last pedal-powered dentist, generating electrical energy is far less efficient than generating mechanical energy, pedal-powered or not.

Not available for comment. (Source:

At a basic level (one at which I am forced to operate daily, forgive me), pedaling a bike to create energy is no different than spinning the giant turbine generators that provided 47.7 percent of power in the United States in 2019.

Despite the fact these generators are typically driven by steam due to their sheer size, they’re no better than their human-powered ancestors when it comes to the losses inherent in transforming motion into electricity. For instance, in the typical power plant using coal to produce its steam, only about ⅓ of energy produced actually makes it into the grid.

The rest, according to the laws of thermodynamics, is lost during this transformative process as heat. To be fair, newer/more innovative power plants do a better job of capturing this heat and putting it to use. But the fact remains, transforming mechanical energy into electricity requires you to put a lot more in than what you can get out. Still, power is produced. How much pedaling could we actually need to power a home? 

Again, in 2019, the average American home used an average of 30 kilowatts per day. By comparison, a professional cyclist can produce 400 watts per hour during the average race.

This means that even if we hooked said cyclist up to a generator capable of running at 100% efficiency, they would still need to maintain that 400 watts per hour pace for 75 hours to provide one house with one day’s worth of energy. 

Original source:

Now, hold up gang. While the realities of the math here are more sobering than sitting in the chair at a pedal-powered dentist, they’re no reason to give up on pedal electric power. What if we’re simply looking at this backward? Is pedal electric power far too limited? Or, might we be consuming far too much power?

Sustainable Thinking Is a Two-Way Street

Here’s where we make the tiny turn back to why this is all relevant to the Racer and Kronfeld Motor Company.

Because the little thought experiment above is a good reminder that there are as many ideas of what “home” means as there are people living in them. And if we’re really going to make substantial strides towards truly sustainable living, we need to challenge ourselves to innovate in all directions. 

Pedal-electric power can get better at producing power, and we’re excited to be playing a part in making this so. But buildings (and vehicles) can get better at using less of it. Lasting change is going to take innovation and improvement holistically. There will be no silver bullets. But what’s inspiring here is that more opportunity to make improvements means more room for us all to dive in and help out.

Food for thought.

Till next time folks, let’s keep thinking #netzero.

Efficiency Needs To Be The Next Moore’s Law

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Beautiful, isn’t it? My mom’s 1970 Cadillac Eldorado: inefficiency at it’s finest.

Let me ask you a question:

When you make a meal for 4 people, do you instead cook for 40 people and throw the rest away? When you run the dishwasher, do you run 10 dishwashers with one plate and fork in each? When you brush your teeth, do you turn on 1 sink, or 10 sinks? This is essentially what we do when we drive a car as a single occupant. Single occupant cars are horribly inefficient, but cars in general are horribly inefficient.

I am obsessed with efficiency, I hate waste. I overfill the tires on my Prius to decrease road resistance; in winter, I leave the hot water in the bathtub until it equalizes with the ambient air to get all the stored heat out of the water; I keep the furnace in my house around 67 degrees and I eat all our leftovers – much to the disgust of my family. Like George Costanza complaining about anathemas, (things people hate), waste is an anathema for me. But there are areas of our disposable culture that revolutionized efficiency.

So I don’t have to re-invent the wheel and come up with a better definition of Moore’s Law, I will insert Wiki here:

Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years. Moore’s law is an observation and projection of a historical trend. Rather than a law of physics, it is an empirical relationship linked to gains from experience in production.

We all know the key takeaway from this law: over time, computers get faster and better. I remember reading a book by Ray Kurzweil regarding the exponential explosion of computer power that made an analogy to the world of transportation. It said that, (I’m paraphrasing), if cars had evolved as much as computers have, they would get a million miles per gallon, be able to go 100 times the speed of light and cost about $2 dollars. This stuck with me because it’s a great comparison that shows what can be accomplished if there is a will to do so.

In the story of the computer revolution, gigantic amounts of money and talent were brought to bear because there was a market need, an incentive which translated into profit and growth. This is a good thing; profit, business success should be a driver for technological advancement. But in the story of the automobile, gigantic amounts of money and talent were brought to bear against technological advancement. Sure, I know, cars have a LOT more technology in them compared to 30 years ago; they’re more reliable, last longer, are supposedly safer and some of them get substantially better gas mileage, (hybrid technology, which is an old idea from the 60’s). But all that technology hasn’t made cars able to go 5,000 miles on a tank of gas, or made them substantially cheaper, actually cars are more expensive than ever. And they still can’t go faster than the speed of light.

So, why? The big automakers resisted any and all change when it came to safety and gas mileage. When Ralph Nader went after GM, and in turn all of Detroit in the 60’s with his book, Unsafe At Any Speed; attacking the dreadful safety record of the Chevy Corvair, the industry knew for a long time the dangers of their products and did little, or nothing; (sound familiar – like big tobacco)? Most every safety innovation and requirement was at first rejected by big auto, but now none of them would want to make a car without seatbelts and air bags because their customers demand them. But gas mileage? Most cars today get about the same, and in many cases worse gas mileage than they did 40, 50, 60 years ago.

The answer? Over time, the government required safety systems in cars and customers came to expect and want more of them. As for gas mileage? The government has made some requirements with the CAFE standards, but the Trump administration, stripped them away. And gas is cheap.

The CAFE standards were enacted in the late 70’s as a response to the “oil crises”, ever since then carmakers have slowly increased their fuel efficiency, drip by drip, but not substantially. In 2011, the Obama administration, in collaboration with all the big car makers announced a goal of minimum 54 mpg for all cars and light trucks, by 2025. and in 2018, the Trump administration halted those ambitious goals. What a tragedy.

Without the directive from the government and the consumer, big auto has little interest in building a car that gets 100, 200, 300 miles per gallon. And if there is any cross contamination in leadership at the helms of big auto and big oil, then surely they have no incentive to dramatically reduce the need for gas. If I believed in conspiracy theories, the first one I’d spout would be the conspiracy between big oil and big auto to keep the oceans of gas flowing as abundantly as possible.

Remember when gas started going in the neighborhood of $4/gallon and higher? The market began looking for solutions, because that’s the great thing about markets. People were really looking for gas guzzling alternatives and the EV market was born. Then, big oil said; “um, okay we’re not doing that anymore” and gas prices came back down. They know full well that as long as gas is cheap, the general public will not seek out alternatives to gas.

Unless we decide to exponentially increase efficiency, (like Moore’s Law), in all aspects of our civilization, whether through profit motive, or government regulation, we’ll never make it to a sustainable future. Your car burns 80% of it’s fuel into waste heat; the power grid losses most of its power, (200 billion kWh/year) in transmission to your house; trains are 1,000 times more efficient than trucks, but trucks are more convenient, so they clog our highways and pollute our lungs.

It’s time for the efficiency revolution; to make waste and inefficiency an anathema.