Rejecting Tech, Some Opting For Human Power

At a time when electronic devices are powering our lives, a slow-growing movement of human-power advocates is unplugging cell phones and laptops, and turning to people as sources of alternative energy. Some harness the power of their muscles and feed it into batteries, while others are more direct.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

When electric and electronic devices were first introduced, the sales pitch was always that these new tools would be labor-saving, and most were. It was farewell to a lot of tedious, sometimes back-breaking jobs. And these days, so much of our lives are powered by big turbines far away.

Now a reaction to that: Reporter Jennifer Sharpe got word of a small movement in the West - a loose collection of human power advocates, people trying to put a bit of elbow grease back into getting jobs done.

JENNIFER SHARPE: Lonnie Green, the inventor of the human-powered bulldozer, sat on his back porch in Grass Valley, California explaining that all these button-activated conveniences we've gotten so used to are just making our bodies go soft.

Mr. LONNIE GREEN (Inventor, Human-powered bulldozer): Because we're so used to just pushing a button and making something happen or pulling a lever, and there's no effort. When you use human power or the bulldozer, you have to work to make something happen. But in the process of working, you're becoming stronger instead of weaker.

Mr. GREEN: Because if you just let go of this blade, it will just dig in and you'll stop.

(Soundbite of creaking)

SHARPE: All right. So you want to go like that kind of light?

Mr. GREEN: There, so that's…

(Soundbite of clanking metal)

Mr. GREEN: Then down here is the shifter, but you probably don't need to shift.

SHARPE: I'm sitting in a lawn chair welded to a scrap metal frame, with my feet out in front of me resting on pedals. But it's not the pedaling that's the hard part, it's having the arms strength to work the crank that lifts up the bulldozer's steel blade.

(Soundbite of clanking metal)

Mr. GREEN: And now you have to kind of let this go, because if you just let go with this blade, it'll just dig in and you'll stop.

(Soundbite of creaking)

SHARPE: All right. So you want to go like that kind of lightly on the ground?

Mr. GREEN: Yeah.

SHARPE: After helping Green move a pile of dirt, I got into my car and headed west for San Jose, where I met self-proclaimed eco-nut and human power enthusiast David Butcher.

Mr. DAVID BUTCHER (Eco-nut, Human Power Enthusiast): Come on out to the garage and I'll show you what the morning starts with. This old dog back here is the one that I ride every morning.

SHARPE: He points to what looks like a primitive spinning bike with a 36-inch fly wheel made out of a pine table top. He calls his invention the Pedal-Powered Prime Mover, and has been using it to harvest his energy since the mid '70s.

Mr. BUTCHER: So I jump up there and I start pedaling. And it's a little noisy.

(Soundbite of bike)

Mr. BUTCHER: That meter reads out how many volts I'm making. Right now, I'm making about eight volts.

SHARPE: Pedaling for an hour every morning, Butcher is able to power his laptop, transmit a Web cast and feed a bank of 13 electric car batteries - the energy that runs the bulk of his home office for the day.

Mr. BUTCHER: A lot of things run because of your money, or run all by themselves or run because of somebody else. But when you charge something up or when you run it directly, you're looking right at the energy that you're making. And it's a very tight connection.

SHARPE: One person who got inspired by Butcher's vision is Adam Boesel, founder of the Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon. Tackling two of his biggest concerns: obesity and global warming, he hardwired his stationary bikes and elliptical equipment to feed the energy generated on them back into the building.

Mr. ADAM BOESEL (Founder, Green Microgym): When you're talking about human power, you're talking about more than just somebody exercising on a bike and that makes electricity. You're talking about humans taking control of their environment in every way possible.

(Soundbite of song, "Sending Out")

Mr. FOSSIL FOOL (The Bike Rapper; Founder, Rock the Bike): (Singing) You got to leave your Prius outside the club. You got to leave your Hummer outside the club.

SHARPE: Pedal-powered bike rapper Fossil Fool, also known as Paul Freedman, is out on the steps of San Francisco's Academy of Sciences. Seeing human power as a tool for community building, his company: Rock the Bike, sells what might make a good mascot for the human power movement: A pedal-powered bike blender called the Fender Blender.

Mr. FOSSIL FOOL: Almost everyone that buys it, the first thing that they want to do with it is they want to take it out into their community and share a sweet, thick, bike-blended smoothie.

(Soundbite of a blender)

SHARPE: But to Albert Hartman, founder of High Tide Associates in Silicon Valley, human power isn't about lifestyle choices, it's about survival. His company was hired by the military to design a hand-cranked battery charger.

Mr. ALBERT HARTMAN (Founder, High Tide Associates): The scenario that they were interested in was a dismounted soldier that was carrying everything on their back in their rucksack. And so they were interested in something that was about a pound.

SHARPE: He says the military is so reliant on human power, they research every and any new technology they hear about, no matter how far-fetched.

Mr. HARTMAN: I heard of somebody trying to implant a turbine, a little propeller, inside somebody's vein. And the idea was that as the blood rushes by this little thing, it would turn on a little generator and make electricity.

SHARPE: With consumer electronics getting smaller and more conducive to a mobile lifestyle, Hartman sees the everyday person as becoming increasing similar to a Special Forces operative.

Mr. HARTMAN: If you got stuck out in public land going four-wheeling or something, are you getting an air drop every 24 hours? I don't think so.

SHARPE: This fall, Hartman plans to unveil the Roller Gen, a pedal-powered consumer version of his military charger that will snap onto the back wheel of any bike and fuel up a battery. He hopes the Roller Gen will make its way into off-grid villages in the developing world whose low-watt power needs, mostly cell phones and LED reading lights, are now within the reach of human power.

As for my human-power harvest…

(Soundbite of bike)

Mr. BUTCHER: A little more. Try to stay above 12.

SHARPE: When I climbed onto David Butcher's pedal-powered Prime Mover, I was able to simultaneously run two cell phones, an electric razor and charge up one of those labor-saving robot vacuum cleaners, the Roomba.

Mr. BUTCHER: Okay, here comes the Roomba. Ready? And it's on.

SHARPE: As my energy propelled the Roomba across the driveway and vacuumed up the cement, I looked at it and thought: now, that's progress.

Mr. BUTCHER: Could you feel anything?

SHARPE: A little bit. It's harder. Oh, definitely. I feel it in my quads. In my…

Mr. BUTCHER: You've got to pedal a little harder, your voltage is dropping.

SHARPE: Oh.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Sharpe.

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