Cycling energy slaves and EROI

Takver, Flickr

Source: Takver, Flickr

Could the energy from avid exercisers be effectively harnessed to provide commercial electricity? The BBC has apparently tested this out in a programme going to air tonight in the UK, called (rather worrying for our gym-energy empire plans) ‘Bang goes the theory’.

The Guardian has seen the preview and indeed, it doesn’t end well:

This is the conclusion of Tim Siddall of Electric Pedals, the company hired to supply the bicycles and cyclists. For 11 hours, 100 volunteers rode furiously, getting no more than lunch and the chance to be on TV. “They were dead excited at first,” says Siddall. “But after five hours they had had enough of the boredom and the pain.”

There are some jokes about how many cycling slaves the BBC would need to power its film kit. But what we found most interesting was that the big problem (apart from scalability, presumably) was feeding the cyclists:

“You would use more energy feeding them than the energy they produced,” says Siddall.

In otherwords, the “energy return on investment” was poor — rather like American corn ethanol and (hypothetical) CCS-equipped power plants.

But such poor returns are something we may have to get used to. As Gregor writes today, the world has so far only made shifts to higher and higher density forms of energy – but with non-Opec oil production close to peaking, our next big energy transitions will inevitably be towards lower-density energy sources. This simple fact, he says, is ignored by many energy solutions:

For example, one group of transitionists will lay out the technical feasibility of running the world exclusively on clean power. But they ignore the construction phase, or the energy required to fund it. Other transitionists will appear to address the construction phase, but instead will elide over crucial engineering details by invoking historical examples of national will–like the space program, or the retooling of Detroit during WW II. Most neglected however is the history of previous energy transitions.

And how will we make this transition? For the US, Gregor argues that California’s offshore oil sources should be exploited quickly in order to carry out the massive infrastructure development required to capture and transport energy from wind and solar.

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