Burgers to the Grid: Fat-Powered City

Americans eat enough excess food in a single year to provide power to 7.95 Billion households, or enough to power every house in the U.S. For about 70 years. How do we harness the power of the American belly?

From Burgers to the Grid (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)
Illustration: P.M. Lydon

What is the largest source of stored energy in the U.S. today?

Is it in battery bays adjacent to wind-power facilities? The undercarriages of the 1 million Prius vehicles on our streets? The coal mines and oil reserves yet to be tapped into?

Or is it in the bellies of 238 million overweight and obese Americans?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. citizens either eat or waste an average of 3,600 calories per day, that’s 1,600 calories over the 2,000 calorie recommended daily allowance. Because calories are essentially energy (which soon get converted into fat) we began to wonder: What if we were able to convert all of that excess caloric energy into power? Perhaps we might do well to introduce America’s renewable energy needs to our bellies.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement of course, but looking at the numbers, if that extra 1,600 calories were converted into energy, that would make (1,600kcal x 317,000,000 Americans) = 185 trillion kcal. Convert those kcals to joules and you come up with a figure of around 250 Million Gigawatt/hr of power.

All told, Americans eat or waste enough excess food-energy in a single year to provide power to 7.95 Billion households, or enough to power every house in the U.S. For 70 years at current power consumption rates.

Of course, the results of these calculations would only be possible if every American burned off all of the excess calories they ate (about 4-5 hours of cycling per day) and if those calories were able to be directly (losslessly) converted to energy. It is at this point that any vision of an electricity grid powered by cyclists at the gym begins to seem impossible at worst, and unlikely at best.

There are glints of hope, however: using bicycles for power (either for direct mechanical power, or to produce stored energy) is not a new idea. We’ve been powering everything from lightbulbs (electrically) to blenders (mechanically) with bicycles for quite some time, and recently, a few students at MIT even developed a bicycle-powered laptop.

MIT ‘innovation’ aside, a very small amount of time, research and funding has gone into making human-power energy generation technology more efficient, especially when compared to other ‘sustainable’ energy creation methods.

Store Calories to make Fat, or Burn Calories to make Energy? (Illustration | sociecity)
Store Calories to make Fat, or Burn Calories to make Energy? (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using human energy for electric power would do more than just provide exercise and energy however, it would give Americans an important reason to come together for a common goal and, of equal importance, would help us attach a tangible activity to our consumption.

Conceptually, the idea has much in common with projects such as the Victory Gardens during WWII, also a lot of manual work, yet hugely successful on many levels. Given proper intellectual and financial resources, human-power could be a big win for the United States, perhaps making us one of the leanest, greenest nations, instead of the fattest and most wasteful.

While powering all of the houses in the U.S. for 70 years may not be possible, just visualizing those 185 trillion calories as watts gives us a very real glimpse at the amount of raw excess energy (yes, food is energy) that we put in our mouths each day.

So then, until our local neighborhood bike generator farm arrives, perhaps we should just start making smaller plates?

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More Research:

The Nutrition Transition to 3020 – Schmidhuber/Shetty (pdf)
Population Clock – U.S. Census Bureau
Installed Capacity of World Power Plants – Steam Tables Online
Household Energy Savings – Silverman/U.C. Irvine
U.S. Energy Consumption – U.S. Energy Information Administration


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