Skip to content

The Cost in Human Energy

January 16, 2013
Posted on January 2, 2013 by

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

For a while, I taught a course in human-powered machinery for the Peace Corps. You know, bicycle powered generators, treadle powered pumps, that kind of thing. One of the very rough rules of thumb regarding human energy is that an adult human can put out about a hundred watts on an ongoing, constant all-day basis. If you were to hook up a bicycle to a generator you could generate a kilowatt-hour every day … if you were in good shape and you put in a ten-hour day. Sounds like work to me.

bicycle powered can crusherFigure 1. Human-powered aluminum can crusher, Burning Man 2012.

I got to thinking about this number, one kilowatt-hour’s worth of electricity for a long ten-hour day’s work, in the context of the discussion about energy costs. Some people think raising energy costs to discourage CO2 production is a good thing. I say that raising energy costs, whether to discourage CO2 or for any other reason, trades a certain present loss for a very doubtful future gain. As such, it is an extremely bad idea. Here’s why:

The existence of electricity is perhaps the one thing most emblematic of human development. With electricity, we get refrigeration to preserve medicines and foods, light to extend the day, electric heat, power to run machinery, the list goes on and on. Now, as I showed above, we can hire somebody to generate electricity for us, at the rate of a kilowatt-hour for each ten-hour day’s work. Where I live, this day’s worth of slave labor, this thousand watt-hours of energy, costs me the princely sum of about thirteen cents US. I can buy an electric slave-day of work for thirteen cents.

That is why I live well. Instead of having slaves as the Romans had, I can buy a day’s worth of a slave’s constant labor for thirteen measly cents. That is what development consists of, the use of electricity and other forms of inexpensive energy in addition to and in lieu of human energy.

Now, here’s the next part of the puzzle. Out at the farther edges of society, where people live on a dollar a day or less, electricity is much more expensive than it is where I live. In the Solomon Islands, where I lived before returning to the US in 2009, electricity in the capital city cost fifty-two cents a kilowatt-hour, and more out in the outer islands.

Read the rest at

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: