Pedaling Our Way to Energy Independence

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign the buzzword “energy independence” reemerged atop the nation’s political agenda. U.S. policy makers and talking heads have increasingly declared the need for energy self-sufficiency. According to economist Daniel Yergin, writing for the Wall Street Journal, the United States is presently over 70 percent self-sufficient, a higher percentage than many Americans realize. But the pundits insist we must do better. How can we achieve that additional 30 percent without sending billions of U.S. dollars to OPEC nations and that big pink country to the north?

If you listen to the John McCains and the Sarah Palins, we should start by drilling in Alaska and building nuclear power plants. If Barack Obama and Al Gore are more to your tastes, the answers are in hybrid cars, clean coal technology, and investment in renewable energy sources such as wind and hydroelectric power. But maybe there’s another option, one our pundits and political leaders have overlooked.

Wind, water, and steam turbines generate energy by using natural kinetic sources to rotate drive shafts connected to electric generators. At work are basic principles of physics, which instruct that an electric current is generated by cranking a loop of wire between stationary magnets. A massive steel windmill generates electricity the same way as a science experiment with two magnets and a coil of wire; the wire and magnets are merely larger in the windmill.

That got me thinking–how else might we crank generators to produce electrical energy? How do we gain that final 30 percent of energy we currently import? Maybe the question we should be asking is, how can we do more cranking? It’s not an energy deficit we’re dealing with–it’s a cranking deficit.

Once the question is properly posed, the answer becomes obvious–foot pedals.

Tens of millions of students and white-collar employees in the United States spend their days seated at a desk. Instead of idling all day, these people could be pedaling. Accountants, attorneys, and academics could be winding their legs under the desk as they work. Students could be pedaling away while they listen and learn. If every cubicle desk, office chair, and board room were equipped with pedals, we could harness millions of kilowatt hours of electricity per day. Consider the possibilities in exercise facilities. Treadmills, stationary bikes, circuit trainers–all could be harnessing energy if equipped with a small generator.

An esteemed physics professor, who wishes to remain anonymous, conservatively estimates that an office worker could generate one kilowatt hour of electricity per day pedaling a small sub-desk generator. When we consider the total number of workers and work days in a year, we’re talking about the potential for billions of kWhs generated annually from human movement alone. That’s a big number. Then take into account the international possibilities–India’s call centers alone could power the world if equipped with pedals. Let’s get those telemarketers winding.

To be sure, there will be skeptics. The infrastructure required to install all those pedals and generators would be staggering, opponents will surely suggest. Granted, it will take some time and a bit of R&D, but leave that to the engineers and smart people like Bill Gates and Al Gore–if they can figure out how to make the Clapper, the Segway, and an iPod the size of a credit card, I’m sure they can whip up the portable pedal generator (or PPG) in no time. Other skeptic will argue that, with all of that churning and spinning, people will require greater food intake, which would offset the harnessed energy. This argument fails to consider the substitution effect: by churning away all day, students and office workers will have less need to exercise independently. Instead of running or biking after work, people will simultaneously stay fit and solve the energy crisis. On account of the obesity epidemic, we’re already carrying around colossal amounts of excess energy in our guts and upper thighs; the PPGs will enable us to convert that blubber into a more usable form.

It’s almost too simple. In fact, I’m surprised efforts haven’t already been taken to install PPGs in office spaces and public classrooms. There’s a lot of work to do, and there’s no time like the present to get started.

We can install pedals on everything: restaurant booths, airplane seats, subway trains, toddler car seats, and church pews. Let’s make it fun–employer-sponsored prizes, private office pools for energy production, bragging rights for best pedaler and most improved. The sky’s the limit.

Who needs more windmills and oil rigs when we can collectively crank our way to energy independence? Call your local representative; write a letter to the Department of Energy. No more dependence on foreign oil–let’s get cranking!

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