Power to the people

I watched a fascinating program on TV last night, a special episode called ‘The Human Power Station’ of BBC program Bang Goes the Theory . They asked a family of four to participate in an experiment, without telling them what it was, and got them to behave as they would normally on any given Sunday – lounge around at home mostly.

The experiment involved unhooking them from the electricity grid, and instead feeding power to the house by way of several dozen cyclists in a nearby warehouse, pedaling stationary bikes attached to dynamos. Cameras set up inside the house would track what the family was doing.

The stated purpose of the experiment was to see what typical power consumption equates to in human effort. The results were surprising to me, having not thought about the specifics much at all. They found each cyclist (club members, not your average Joes) could produce about 100 watts going at a steady clip, which meant they needed 15 to heat up the iron, 24 to run the oven, 20 for the kettle, 4 for the TV and Wii, 16 for the vacuum…. Then there was the tumble dryer, the coffee machine, the fridge, the lights, computers, and all the miscellaneous electrical devices found in your average Western home.

Of course the real purpose was to show how much power is simply wasted. There was a running commentary on how long the oven had been on without cooking anything, how the coffee machine was left on all day, how things weren’t turned off at the wall, etc. At one point the family went for a walk, so a presenter went in to check what had been left on, or on standby, and the amount of cycling needed just to keep things ticking over was quite substantial.

Now that’s all fine – it’s great to have our electricity use made tangible like that, and almost all of us can stand to use power more frugally. However, what really made an impression on me was how amazing and wonderful the increase in power consumption has been for improving human lives.

At the end of the show, another presenter showed what the equivalent energy would mean in fossil fuel terms – an amount of coal that would fit in a big shopping bag, or roughly three litres of oil. Scores of people, working non-stop all day on quite efficient devices, could barely muster the joules present in an armful of carbonised vegetable matter!

Imagine living in a time when human power was the main form of usable energy (in fact, in some places in the world, it still is!) – the sheer effort required to provide goods and services would mean you would have very few of either. This is called ‘poverty’. The enormous increase in energy – in productivity – that has been made available to us, or is inherent in our possessions, is why we live the good life now. All thanks to the processes that made that possible – capital accumulation, technological progress, and economic growth – and the system that gives us more of them than any other: capitalism.

As I said, this doesn’t preclude being more energy efficient – saving it in one place makes it available in another. There’s also the environmental consequences to consider. In my ideal world, we would consume truly vast amounts of energy, but without impacting on the world that sustains us. Some technologies offer promise in this respect, but they all look a long way off.

In the meantime, try this.

This entry was posted in economics, environment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Power to the people

  1. . says:

    How much uranium would have that required?

  2. Jarrah says:

    Relying on my terrible memory, I think the family consumed a bit over 8 kWh during the experiment. Uranium 235 generates about 24,000,000 kWh per kilogram. So yeah, how much would they have used? Not a whole lot!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *