human powered life
July 9, 2019 9:01 AM   Subscribe

The Human Power Plant "is a multi-disciplinary research project into the possibilities of reducing energy demand in a modern society. If people have to generate their own power, they are much less likely to waste it. How would the world look like if all energy was supplied by humans? Could we maintain a modern lifestyle with human power alone?" posted by the man of twists and turns (44 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is this the Matrix? It appears to be more Plimouth Plantation than the Matrix, but I may be missing something.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:06 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


A Tour de France cyclist can sustain producing ~219W over 5 hours, for a total of about 1kWh, which is worth about 13 cents at the average US electricity price. That same kWh is equivalent to about 860 nutritional calories (i.e. kcal). 10 cents would buy about 860 calories worth of soybean oil purchased in bulk, which is about as cheap as it gets for pure calories.

So assuming perfect electrical (and biological) conversion of energy, a human in peak condition would need to spend 5 hours a day doing grueling work to produce 13 cents worth of electricity, at least 10 cents of which must be spent on food, leaving 3 cents per day to amortize the cost of the bike, generator, etc. This ignores all other nutritional considerations and assumes that the cyclist can do that level of work indefinitely.

Even allowing for some efficiency gains due to improved materials and tools, returning to human power alone means going back to a roughly Bronze Age level of productivity, before the invention of the water wheel.
posted by jedicus at 9:38 AM on July 9 [25 favorites]


How about we just stop subsidizing hydrocarbon extraction.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:45 AM on July 9 [21 favorites]


This sounds like slavery with extra steps.
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 9:49 AM on July 9 [25 favorites]


Hmmm... where have I heard that idea before?*

disclaimer: I haven't read all the links yet
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:01 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I both agree and disagree with the premise, that requiring that we generate our own power will make us less wasteful. In a sense it seems obvious, but shouldn't paying for our power also have the same effect?

It also says something that the building designed to be run on human power alone is not built with human power alone. One of the things is says is that it won't tell you much about running modern society on human power.

For extra motivation, all exercise machines in our prototype human power plant are facing a jacuzzi & shower where girls are invited to encourage the boys to flex their muscles and generate more power. Of course, the gender roles could be reversed, but during the first experiments we discovered that this is less energy-efficient. Girls don't seem to get motivated by guys in jacuzzis, at least not to the extent that guys get motivated by girls in jacuzzis.

Oh for fuck's sake.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:02 AM on July 9 [43 favorites]


Even if we decide to use bio-energy, what makes humans the ideal tool? Isn't it possible that horses, oxen, or other draft animals might generate more power per calorie? Bacteria, algae or the like?

Where does it cross the line and suddenly we're just reinventing wood stoves?
posted by explosion at 10:04 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


There's a lot that can reasonably be done with human power. But there's no reason to ignore other sustainable sources of power like wind and water. (Solar's more iffy; I'm not sure that the creation and maintenance of solar panels is sustainable, but "solar-powered water heaters" is definitely do-able.)

we have automated and motorised even the smallest physical efforts. At the same time, we go to the gym to keep in shape, generating energy that's wasted

Who's this "we" you speak of? A whole lot of us do not "go to the gym to keep in shape" because, among other reasons, gyms are not designed to be accessible or useful for people of limited physical ability.

The human powered student building has 22 floors and no passenger elevators.

So, my husband and father would need to be housed on the ground floor, I guess.

The best athletes in the yearly Empire State Building Run climb 86 floors in 10 to 12 minutes. At such speeds, it would take only 3 minutes to climb the entire human powered student building -- quicker than an elevator, which usually stops along the way. Going down the stairs would go even faster when jumping and swinging around corners.

Is this... parody? "Yo, super-athletes can run up stairs faster than elevators, and also, skipping basic stair safety can make it EVEN FASTER!" Do they provide jumplines from the top to just rappel down?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:09 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I'm pretty sure this is a joke.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:16 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


"Human power" is just really inefficient solar power.
posted by Foosnark at 10:17 AM on July 9 [23 favorites]


If you dig into some of the stuff on the page, it seems really pretty good to me. As speculative design, not as a blueprint for the real future. They've got a page talking about the historical problems of human power (slavery), and the current problems with human power (electricity is so cheap right now that we can't produce a financial incentive to produce it; we can't pay people enough). They also talk about the fact that the greenhouse gases produced by the food it takes to feed people far outstrip the greenhouse gases used to produce a comparable amount of electrical energy.

I'm tickled by the fact that making all the equipment make noises when you use it is more motivating to get people to use it than the prospect of relaxing in the jacuzzi (gross objectification aside). A lot of the point of the project appeared to be figuring out how to make human-powering stuff appealing and self-motivating, even above and beyond making it efficient. (They point out that their energy capture is nowhere close to as efficient as it could have been, because a lot of the stuff that made it fun to use made it less efficient.)

And yeah, the student-powered building is ridiculous as a serious proposal. It reads more like something in between parody and scifi to me. Did you guys notice the clip-art of a woman sprawled out on the stairs landing like she'd just fallen down? I don't think that they really think that it's a good idea to Parkour down the stairs.

This was fun! I thought it was fun!!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:23 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I mean, they also talk about dumpster diving to add surprises to the diet...
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:24 AM on July 9


"Human power" is just really inefficient solar power.

When you get down to its, there's only really gravity, fission, and fusion. Everything else is conversion losses.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:26 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


How many merits do I need to turn off the compulsory porn?
posted by flabdablet at 10:38 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


A modest proposal, indeed.
posted by Mogur at 10:50 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Hmmm... where have I heard that idea before?*

Holland? "You pump or you die" was literally trye once.
posted by ocschwar at 10:50 AM on July 9


Huffy Puffy: Is this the Matrix?

Humans make lousy energy generators (Film School Rejects critique).


Keith Talent: I'm pretty sure this is a joke.

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (Wikipedia article with plot summary) is near-term science fiction, and on some days it feels like this reality of human-"charged" kink-springs as batteries is just around the corner.


Now that we've got human power, what to do with it? The Human Powered Student Building, with space for 750 rooms, stairways, human powered washing machines and short showers, treadmills and communal gym, biogas production, (mostly) vegan diet and mandatory work scheduling.

Years back, a friend commented that she thought it was so odd that people would pay money to work out in a gym, when they could do manual labor to work out and accomplish something (yes, she realizes that you can target certain muscles with fancy equipment, but in general, gyms seemed silly to her). I'll have to send this to her.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:55 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Hmmm... where have I heard that idea before?*

Where have I heard this more recently?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:04 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure this is a joke.
A few years ago I saw an Australian comic open for an academic conference. One highlight was his idea for turning students into an energy source for campus power, saving costs and being more green at the same time. I think much of his plan involved students biking to make electricity.

(Or I was jet-lagged, fell asleep, and dreamed of an early scene in Soylent Green where roommates take turns at an exercise bike to power a lightbulb.)
posted by doctornemo at 11:04 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Could We Run Modern Society on Human Power Alone?

No. Even ancient society used animals and watermills, and nothing like modern society could exist without steam or electricity.

But you can quite reasonably and easily use human-powered vehicles for most local transportation needs. They're called bicycles. And shoes.
posted by pracowity at 11:11 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


When you get down to its, there's only really gravity, fission, and fusion. Everything else is conversion losses.

Electro-magnetism getting no love.

As usual.

(Most of the power we get today is chemical in origin, although the origin of the atoms was either the big bang or stellar nuclear-synthesis, so you are still sort of right)
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:27 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Chemical energy comes from the bonds between atoms, not the atoms themselves, so where exactly the atoms came from isn't particularly important. The chemical energy in fossil fuels comes from molecular bonds created by solar energy harnessed by plants millions of years ago.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:45 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I had a teacher who told us that humans were the most efficient way to move stuff around. His example was those guys in India, for example, moving a ton of stuff around on bicycles. They are the cheapest way to transport stuff. So instead of humans generating energy, maybe it’s just using cheap human energy where appropriate.
posted by njohnson23 at 11:47 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Human couriers may be the cheapest method for transporting lunches and delivering mail. They are not, regardless of cost, the best way to deliver organs between hospitals.

I like the idea of looking into human power options. I'd like it more if the people promoting it put some serious thought into the areas where tech advancements are literally a matter of life or death.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:27 PM on July 9


Ask yourself how much horsepower your car engine has, and then ask yourself how many horses you can outrun and/or beat up.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:38 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (Wikipedia article with plot summary) is near-term science fiction, and on some days it feels like this reality of human-"charged" kink-springs as batteries is just around the corner.

Yeahbut TWG is profoundly silly because it expresses winding springs with gene-tampered mammoths as somehow a necessity instead of an expression of a quasireligious taboo.

If you can burn mammoth food in a mammoth to do useful work, you can also burn it in an actual fire to turn a turbine.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:40 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Ask yourself how much horsepower your car engine has, and then ask yourself how many horses you can outrun and/or beat up.

One, but I will beat it up only if it is trying to kill my family. A jerk horse in other words, not a friendly horse that I will communicate with Morse Morse Morse.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:14 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


ask yourself how many horses you can outrun and/or beat up.

At once, or consecutively? Humans can outrun nearly any animal. Some humans still engage in persistence hunting today. Though it might be that horses are one of the few we can't outrun.
posted by explosion at 1:24 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


"Ask yourself how much horsepower your car engine has, and then ask yourself how many horses you can outrun and/or beat up."

Duck-sized horses? I could beat up 100 of them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:25 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


This would be an interesting sort of experiment, though, to build a (much smaller) building on a college campus that runs entirely on human power, and let students go live in it 10 at a time for a week at a time. That would be a hella interesting object lesson in energy production and use and conservation.

I had a friend in college who used to (with her housemates) give up electricity (at home) for Lent every year. (Also gas-powered vehicles.) They walked or biked everywhere, when it got dark out they used candles or went to bed, they only used their computers on campus. They turned off their heat and A/C and didn't use the stove. (They did use the refrigerator so nobody got food poisoning.) It's a tiny bit like this, in that their major energy consumption was done in communal spaces -- laundromats, campus computer labs, campus dining halls -- and it turned out a lot of their routine energy use at home was pretty extraneous when they had those communal spaces available. (And it was definitely weird of them, but also they used to have candlelight guitar-accompanied singalongs in the evenings and I am always up for a candlelight guitar-accompanied singalong!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:32 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


pracowity: But you can quite reasonably and easily use human-powered vehicles for most local transportation needs. They're called bicycles. And shoes.

As I was riding my bike to work the other day, I was wondering how much embodied energy there was in the asphalt path I was riding on. If you want all-weather efficient cycling, you need asphalt or concrete, otherwise you're struggling rather inefficiently through mud whenever it rains. How much human power would it take to build a mile of all-weather bike path, I wonder?
posted by clawsoon at 2:19 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Nicely bracketed between the thread on US codes encouraging ever bigger car use, and the one on children doing stoop labor to feed us.
posted by clew at 2:22 PM on July 9


How much human power would it take to build a mile of all-weather bike path, I wonder?

No idea, but even if it took regular motorized asphalt- or concrete-laying machinery to build and maintain a city's network of bicycle paths, it would be worth it compared to the work that goes into building and maintaining streets for cars that are nearly empty 90 percent of the time.
posted by pracowity at 2:46 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


How much human power would it take to build a mile of all-weather bike path

Not more than was spent on roads through a lot of human history. Usually a significant part of social effort, so (e.g.) it is a millenium's battle in England, which the Webbs cover gloriously (in English Local Government, I think). Down-maintaining cart roads for wheelbarrows seems pretty relevant;
The Chinese wheelbarrow - which was driven by human labour, beasts of burden and wind power - was of a different design than its European counterpart. By placing a large wheel in the middle of the vehicle instead of a smaller wheel in front, one could easily carry three to six times as much weight than if using a European wheelbarrow.

The one-wheeled vehicle appeared around the time the extensive Ancient Chinese road infrastructure began to disintegrate. Instead of holding on to carts, wagons and wide paved roads, the Chinese turned their focus to a much more easily maintainable network of narrow paths designed for wheelbarrows. The Europeans, faced with similar problems at the time, did not adapt and subsequently lost the option of smooth land transportation for almost one thousand years.
posted by clew at 4:00 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


*yawn* been there - seen this. The whole Transition Towns movement a decade plus ago along with their "PowerDown" events. Go ahead - find functioning TT's or PowerDown events.

While a cycle gets ya 200ish watts your upper body is rated at 90 watts for a fit male human in prime shape. So now you have some base figures for the energy flow into making that bicycle roadway. Not sure how you human-power a cement making kiln however.

Mr. Diamond of Guns, Germs and Steel noted the difference of the cultures which lacked draft animals (so were therefore human powered) and the draft animal ones. So the "what could just humans do" has an answer, if you accept his work.

All of these topics were hashed out on the no longer updating site The Oil Drum years ago. You might be able to have a Q and A with Niccole Foss who'd spend a bit of time trying to set ya straight.

If you are wanting to try and quantify energy AND place a value on I had a teacher who told us that humans were the most efficient way to move stuff around. His example was those guys in India, for example, moving a ton of stuff around on bicycles. They are the cheapest way to transport stuff. old oil-man Howard Odom has eMergy accounting as a way to do that.

About the only energy thing that has changed from the live days of The Oil Drum to now is Salvatore Cezar Pais getting some patents and the room temp superconductors plus power needed to run such a device.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:02 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


"solar-powered water heaters" is definitely do-able.

Yes, but amusingly enough, in much of the US (basically anywhere it freezes), it's more efficient (in a lifecycle view) to use PV to generate electricity and then use the electricity to heat water than it is to heat the water in a solar-thermal device.
posted by aramaic at 6:07 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't have guessed that, aramaic, when the PV and wiring are made from more refined materials. And solar rooftop water preheaters last a long time if they were installed by professionals, IME (mileage for desperate/hopeful 1970s DIY will vary).
posted by clew at 6:24 PM on July 9


I'm mobile in an area with crappy connectivity, so I don't have my primary resources handy, but a quickie:

https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/solar-thermal-is-really-really-dead

...but a key part is that it's really really hard to store thermal energy, so it's hard to demand-shift. PV in a net metering state, however, can trivially demand-shift within a year so they get maximum advantage in their summer, and can thereby prop up winter whereas thermal systems can't. Even without net metering PV is still usually (not always!) better over the long term and have been dropping in cost far far faster than thermal (to say nothing of thermal storage).
posted by aramaic at 6:47 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


ah yes, we're in the state we're in because "people" are wasting all the resources...
posted by Reyturner at 9:28 PM on July 9


If human (ie food ie solar) power generation became a thing, capitalism would simply expand production to maximise profits, just as it seems to be doing with PV etc.
posted by pompomtom at 9:41 PM on July 9


When you get down to its, there's only really gravity, fission, and fusion. Everything else is conversion losses.

I mean... fission is technically just really really inefficient solar power. You just need to blow up a few stars first to get there.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:48 AM on July 10


Solar's more iffy; I'm not sure that the creation and maintenance of solar panels is sustainable

It is unclear what properties you are referring to in the word sustainable, but the energy payback of solar panels is less than 3 years, and they output power for much longer than that: https://www.bnl.gov/pv/files/pdf/230_SolarEnergy_PV_LCA_2011.pdf
Note that this report was written in 2011 and assumed conversion efficiencies of 14% for monocrystalline silicon panels. Nowadays most silicon panels are above 17% and have also seen efficiency gains from manufacturing scale-up so it's likely the energy payback time is shorter as well.
posted by BeHereNow at 7:51 AM on July 10


I had a friend in college who used to (with her housemates) give up electricity (at home) for Lent every year. (Also gas-powered vehicles.)
On one hand, this is very cool and has an obvious appeal. I'm very tempted by the idea, despite having no particular attachment to Lent. On the other hand, the contribution of household energy consumption isn't all that big, and it's not dominated by college students in shared housing. Depending on when this was, using a laptop at home might have halved the power consumption required to use a desktop PC in the computer lab, or reduced it by a factor of several if you're willing to operate it without air conditioning. Candles aren't free, and almost certainly cost a lot more in energy inputs, transportation, and CO2 output per lumen-hour than an efficient electric light.

On the other, other hand, I love candles and would sure as hell attend a candlelight guitar sing-along party. Pitched as "here's a thing that's interesting to think about," it's unambiguously great. As an attempt to actually reduce consumption in a meaningful way, I'm skeptical.
posted by eotvos at 8:46 AM on July 10


I had a teacher who told us that humans were the most efficient way to move stuff around. His example was those guys in India, for example, moving a ton of stuff around on bicycles. They are the cheapest way to transport stuff. So instead of humans generating energy, maybe it’s just using cheap human energy where appropriate.

Just a random thought: teachers talk a lot of shit, and often rely on the fact that students won't question it.

Most efficient in terms of energy--maybe, though I bet a clever engineer could come up with more efficient designs for special purposes. Most efficient if you place any reasonable cost on human time--probably not. I bet a freighter full of shipping containers is way cheaper than hiring twenty million guys with bicycles, even if there's a way for them to move stuff across an ocean.

To answer the original question: no--no way you can run our present civilization on human power. Certainly you can run some civilization, but not one I'm really eager to live in.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:11 PM on July 10


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