Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Dumb Energy vs Smart Energy

Supplying electricity to a typical family for 12 hours requires the pedal power of 80 elite cyclists. The same amount of electricity can be purchased from the grid for under $5.

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The I Love Fossil Fuels Facebook page posted the above photo yesterday. It reminds those of us now leading clean, safe, affluent Western lives how difficult day-to-day tasks were not so long ago.

In order to feed their families, men and women worked themselves into early graves. The clock ticked down and their lives evaporated as they sweated and toiled.

Now that condemnation of fossil fuels has become trendy, it’s worth revisiting a 2009 UK television episode titled The Human Power Station. The 58-minute show can be watched in its entirely on YouTube. This newspaper article also provides a decent overview.

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In essence, a family of four wakes up in a reality-TV house and spends the next 12 hours undertaking perfectly normal weekend activities: preparing meals, vacuuming, washing and ironing clothes, watching television, and playing video games.

Unbeknownst to them, the house isn’t connected to the local electricity grid but is actually being powered by as many as 80 cyclists on stationary bikes in a nearby building. While the television show doesn’t make this explicit, the newspaper article tells us these aren’t ordinary cyclists – but “members of some of Britain’s most elite cycling clubs.”

Preparing a modest breakfast with a kettle, coffee machine, microwave, and toaster requires the pedal power of 50 cyclists. Seventeen others are required to power the clothes washing machine, 18 are needed for the hairdryer, and 24 are required to heat the oven.

Toward the end of this 12-hour experiment, the cyclists are exhausted and we’re told that the mere act of roasting a chicken in the oven, followed by baking a dessert inflicts an “excruciating workload” on these strong, fit, experienced athletes.

When the kettle is also pressed into service, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back – and a temporary power outage occurs.

Shortly past the 48 minute mark, the TV program is honest enough to show us the modest amount of coal or oil that would have been required to produce the same amount of electricity (I’ve drawn yellow boxes around them below). The program hosts then studiously ignore the indisputable – that fossil fuels are, hands down, the superior choice.

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One of the reasons you have to deduce this for yourself is because important data is not supplied:

  • we aren’t told how much that coal or oil costs
  • we aren’t told the price tag associated with feeding (fueling) and hydrating all of those cyclists over 12 hours
  • we aren’t told how much the bicycles cost
  • the amount of CO2 that would have been emitted by burning coal and oil is discussed, but there’s no mention of how much additional CO2 was emitted by cyclists working so hard

Then there’s the small matter of those folks’ time. The minimum wage in the UK currently exceeds £6 an hour. Hiring 80 people for 12 hours adds up to 960 hours. Multiply that by six and the bill comes to £5,760 – or $8,800 USD.

Despite it’s refusal to draw the screamingly obvious conclusion, this program makes it abundantly clear that the electrical power needs of a typical family over 12 hours (approximately 10 kilowatt hours) can be acquired in two ways – the dumb way or the smart way.

The dumb way involves finding 80 elite cyclists who are prepared to hang out in a smelly room together peddling for all they’re worth. By the time you’ve bought the bikes and provided space, have fed the cyclists, hydrated them, and paid them minimum wage the cost would be exorbitant. It would total many thousands of pounds or dollars.

The smart way involves purchasing 10 kilowatt hours of electrical power that has been generated in a large, modern, efficient power plant that burns coal or oil.

According to the Energy Saving Trust website, the standard electricity rate in the UK is currently 15.32 pence per kilowatt hour. Which means that 10 kilowatt hours of fossil fuel electricity can be purchased for £1.53 – or $2.33 USD.  I’ve double-checked those numbers.

We are a society of wizards. We wield fantastical powers and are surrounded by miracles. And all many of us can do is whine about the downside of fossil fuels.

As if there’s anything in this world that doesn’t have a downside.

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hat tip to Tom Nelson

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