The Electricity-Generating Bicycle Desk That Would Power the World

The story of Pedal Power's bike machine is spreading quickly. The two-man company has more than tripled its crowd-sourced fundraising goal, and its bike desk is being used to power laptops, grind grain for beer, and churn butter.
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Pedal Power

Does one of your colleagues have a standing desk? Maybe even a treadmill desk? Do they talk about how it's adding years to their life, enhancing both productivity and the richness and clarity if their skin? Do they ask you about how uncomfortable it must be to sit all day? You want to wipe the smug superiority off their face once and for all? But not in a violent way. Too much at stake. This time it can't be violent.

How about beating them at their own game. Rising above is for people who can't compete. Show up at the office one day with this handmade bicycle desk that generates power — enough to run your computer or charge your phone, sure, but also enough to mill grain, churn your own butter, run an industrial sewing machine, or split a dang log. Watch it split a log.

Yes, it is loud. The designers are working on a version with rubber belts for an office setting. But then, how would people know you are splitting the office logs?

Pedal Power is a tiny start-up (two guys) based in Essex, New York. A few weeks ago, photos of their bike machine spread widely across the Internet. "With an efficiency of 97 percent, bicycle technology is nearly perfect," they wrote in their pitch. "So why do we use it only for transportation?"

Or, even more wastefully, for spin classes or SoulCycle. That is kinetic energy just floating up into ether and steam and sweaty song. It's like pouring crude oil down the drain. The Internet agreed. Last week their Kickstarter campaign reached its $10,000 goal. Today it's over $30,000. This week they begin work on open-source plans; the stated goal of the crowd-funded project.

Andy Wekin (left) and Steve Blood (right)

I spoke with the co-founders of Pedal Power, Andy Wekin and Steve Blood last week. Wekin is the mechanical engineer, and Blood describes himself as "the computer programming guy" who handles most of the business side. I asked what they're going to do with all of that money.

"So, if you open source your design for the bikes," I said, "and everyone starts building their own, then you won't sell any?"

"Well, most people don't know how to weld," Blood said.

"It's an interesting business case. With a tiny little project like this, it's about getting out there. Andy and I both have inclinations toward the open-source world. Given that we're never going to be a business with a million-dollar marketing budget, we figured if we could open source the design and there were 50 or 100 people around the world who go and build it, they would all be ambassadors for us," Blood said. "So here's a way we can market this cheaply and with a lot of goodwill."

Last year a company called FitDesk kindly sent me a bicycle desk. I liked the concept and worked on it for a bit, but it was lightweight and wobbly. I could read on it for about 20 minutes before I started to get a headache.

Wekin and Blood thought of that.

"Our first prototype was considerably more wobbly than we expected." Now the machines are substantial.

Working at my bike desk also left me sweaty. Not immediately, and even though I wasn't pedaling hard, but surreptitiously sweaty. The kind of heat that comes on slowly, and then you have a meeting and everyone is asking if you're okay.

"Could one power a laptop in a coffee shop without sweating through their shirt?"

"Yep, not a problem."

Talking more to Wekin and Blood, it becomes clear that Pedal Power isn't really about selling a lot of bikes. It's also not even really about or exercise or workplace superiority. It's about our relationship with energy.

"I would love to see Pedal Power machines in every coffee shop in every city in the country," Blood said in their Kickstarter video, "So that people who are working on their laptops, working on their iPads, are at the same time generating their own power for those devices. I want to connect people to the energy they use. I want people to understand how precious energy is, and how hard it is to come by."

"If everyone in the United States could ride on one of these things and feel what it's like to turn on the TV, or flip on the light switch, or turn on a video game," Wekin told Fast Company, "I think it would change how we use energy. We self-flagellate sometimes about our carbon footprint, but we don't even realize what that means."

Chrissy Raudonis, also of Essex, uses Pedal Power to grind soy grains for her chickens every morning. "We have it in there on a coarse setting," she explained, "because chickens can't eat the whole grain." For her there's art in keeping the blow of incoming beans apace with her pedaling.

"It's easy to want to go too fast on it," she said, "and have grain just splattering everywhere. It makes me feel different about my relationship to the work that I'm doing, and makes me feel good that I can get some exercise and produce a valuable product."

Maya Pedal

"In the desk world," Welkin said, "There are people sitting at desks all day who would like to be more active, and that's one side aspect. That's one potential market for ours. But we feel ours is also doing useful work. That's the most important function. Developing nations and people who are living off the grid; small farms and business that are trying to be energy-independent. There's one group called Maya Pedal in Guatemala that is doing great work, taking old bikes from the U.S. and turning them into machines to help pump water, blend food. It's amazing work that they're doing. We'd love to be able to get our machines out there."

Wekin said they have already been contacted by a Toronto physician who works with farmers in rural India and is interested in using their machines to pump water for irrigation there.

They have also had parents semi-jokingly talk about making their kids pedal for their video game time.

The plans will be available in the coming months. Wekin and Blood are starting work this week. They also sold eight machines during the Kickstarter. Only eight? Well, they cost $2,400, plus shipping. 

"We've been a little bit surprised by the media attention," Blood said. "We're just a couple of guys who live in a small town in upstate New York."

Yes, two guys who built a bicycle desk that helps people understand their place in the world. And splits logs.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 

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