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Human Power


The large scale use of non-renewable sources of energy causes an enormous amount of destruction and depletion of the Earth’s natural resources.  New solutions are clearly needed. For the most part, the general public is now familiar with looking to wind and solar power as large scale alternative energy options. However, energy production on a smaller scale is often not addressed, on the assumption that only large-scale applications are of any relevance. However, many of our machines require so much power because they have to do far more work than the real task at hand (for example, a car or elevator has to move a ton or more of material, for the purpose of just moving one person). Hence, there is a lot of scope to use small scale sources of power if we appropriately redesign our machines and tools. Among these small-scale source of power is the energy of our own bodies, which is accessible to almost everyone and could be easily incorporated into people’s daily routines. The focus of this page is primarily on systems that can convert the energy of our movement into electrical energy, to power electric or electronic devices.

Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

Devices that convert human energy into electric power can be used to run a variety of devices in the house, which can contribute to the needs of being at home, housing/shelter, and security. When they are used to power lights that help students to study at night, they contribute to opportunities to learn. Having access to electricity, and especially to modern means of communication, may also facilitate participation in collective economic and political decision-making.

Mobility and human energy go hand in hand. For starters, people use their own energy for mobility without reliance on machinery that has negative impacts on the environment, by walking, running, cycling, skateboarding, etc. Second, using modern technology, human movement can be used to power electronic devices. By using the power of our mobility in a positive way, we can create and harness our own renewable energy rather than relying on non-renewable energy resources. This can also contribute to health, especially for people with sedentary lifestyles, by exercising more and spending more time outside. This can be done by walking to destinations where one would otherwise drive, or at least walking to a public transit stop, and using the stairs instead of the elevator in buildings.


Relationships to Organizational Forms

Human energy is most relevant to the self provisioning cluster by people providing the energy to power electric devices that they personally are going to use, or by using their own energy for their own mobility.

Devices for converting human energy into electricity, as well as human-powered vehicles such as bicycles, are usually made available through individual sales, using currencies and markets. However, they can also be made available through sharing or renting, especially for people who are not using them all the time. They can also be made available in the context of committed sales or services, as in gyms (with monthly or annual memberships) where the exercise machines are used to generate some of the power of the facility.


Relationships to Resources

Human energy is part of the broader energy category. Our bodily energy is derived from our food, which consists of other living things. The devices used to convert our energy into other forms, the appliances that can be run with this energy, as well as human-powered vehicles, belong into the resource category of physical, human-made assets.


Relationships to Abundance

As suggested by the section on the NORA main page, abundance is very much a mindset, and so is implementing human energy harvesting.  Abundance can be created through the use of human energy as a power source, especially when it is used on a group level rather than on an individual by individual basis.  The more we take advantage of the energy we are able to produce through kinetic energy, the less we will need to rely on batteries and on occasion, electricity from the grid, increasing self-reliance on an individual or community basis.


Using Human Energy for Electricity

Even though it would definitely take some getting used to, there are simple changes that could be made to the daily routine of middle class people that would encourage less reliance on non-renewable energy sources and simultaneously promote the use of renewable ones.  Human energy can be harvested while doing even the most basic of tasks.

There is very promising evidence that suggests human energy would be beneficial in the following areas:

Exercise Facilities

There are several exercise facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere that power a small percent of their demand with the energy that is harvested from the customers using the fitness equipment.  This could be done in the majority of exercise facilities as a small step to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  However, the optimal thing would be that people start walking, running, and cycling outdoors and there would be no need for electricity in the gyms because they wouldn't exist. This requires extensive change in many cities (see pages such as complete streets, transit-oriented development, and congestion charging). Since such changes are not forthcoming in many places, it is better that we at least make some changes toward the right direction.

Home Use

The technology already exists for human powered coffee pots and other household items. Almost anything smaller than a laptop can be powered in this way.  However, larger items and items of frequent and prolonged use, such as a laptop, are not good candidates because they would require battery replenishments too frequently to keep up with. So, it is proposed that cell phones, tea kettles, coffeepots, flash lights, and many other battery-operated devices can easily be powered from human energy. There are specific devices that need to be purchased, though, in order to convert the kinetic energy of movement into electric power. 

Children's Toys

Just because it is a children's toy and game doesn't mean that it can't be put to practical use. For example, there is a company called Empower Playgrounds that installs merry-go-rounds in rural areas in Africa. These merry-go-rounds serve as a recreational toy for the school children as well as a way to power their LED lanterns that they use to read and study by at home at night. The company has been expanding to reach more areas and there are also other similar initiatives coming into place all over the world. Children's see-saws can be used for the same purpose.

Medical Applications

There have been advances in the medical field that have allowed us to use the beating of the human heart to power a pace maker. This is great news because it means that people will not have to have invasive procedures to get the batteries on their pace makers replaced.  The person's heart would be able to generate enough energy to work as a generator to keep the pacemaker going.  This is promising for the future of other permanent, battery powered medical devices.

Military Uses

Human energy also has military uses. There are devices that work as knee braces or that van be inserted into the shoe which can be used to harvest the energy that is used while a person is in motion.  The devices are most efficient when placed on frequently moved joints, such as the knee or ankle.  These devices would allow soldiers to create the power for flash lights, radios, phones, and walkie-talkies. This would eliminate the need to carry replacement batteries in their backpacks. There has also been research into making clothing that absorbs the body heat of its wearer and converts that into usable energy. While one may question the desirability of making soldiers more efficient, the same technologies may also be put to use for civilian applications.





Bullock, Anne-Marie. "Can Electricity from the Human Body Replace Batteries?" BBC News. BBC, 09 May 2012. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.

Dean, Tamara. 2008. The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles over Motors. New Society Publishers.

Donelan, J. M., Q. Li, V. Naing, J. A. Hoffer, D. J. Weber, and A. D. Kuo. 2008. Biochemical Energy Harvesting: Generating Electricity During Walking with Minimal User Effort. Science 319 (5864): 807-810.

Gorlatova, Maria, John Sarik, Mina Cong, Ioannis Kymissis, and Gil Zussman. 2013. Movers and Shakers: Kinetic Energy Harvesting for the Internet of Things. Technology Report available from Cornell University Library.

Highfield, Roger. 27. Nov. 2012. "Scientists Have Found A Way To Generate Electricity From The Human Body." Business Insider. Originally published in The Telegraph, 27 Nov. 2012.

Pandian, Shunmugham Raj. 2004. A Human Power Conversion System Based on Children's Play, International Symposium on Technology and Society; see also his presentation.



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