The Home of Tomorrow Might Run on Pedal Power

Here is an idea for DC microgrid that could power just about everything in our homes on solar and bike power.

HOme setup with solar panel


In 2015 I wrote, with my usual prescience, about how the home of tomorrow will run on direct current.

"Look around your house. what is running on alternating current as it comes out of your walls? Outside of your kitchen or laundry, you might have a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer. Otherwise, everything you own — from your computer to your light bulbs to your sound system — is running on direct current. There is a wall-wart or a brick or a rectifier in the light bulb base that converts the AC to DC, wasting energy and money in the process."

It hasn't happened yet, but it appears that tomorrow is getting a lot closer, thanks to a confluence of events:

  • Copper prices are continuing to rise with the electrification of everything; a lot of it goes into the electric motors that go into electric cars, and also into wind turbines and generators. It's already up to $4.028 a pound.
  • From Arizona to Zambia, copper mining and processing leave a trail of environmental destruction; Land degradation. Increased deforestation. Water and air pollution from particles of sulphuric acid. We really should be using as little of it as possible.
  • Even since our 2015 posts, we have been using DC more efficiently in more different kinds of devices. Since then, power tools, vacuum cleaners, almost anything you can think of are running on DC. LED bulbs get more lumens per watt and it's likely that a few of those watts are being sucked up by the transformer and rectifier.

Zenon Radewych of WZMH Architects in Toronto has been complaining about this for years as well. He has been working on designs for DC microgrids that can run on smaller wires and save a lot of energy by getting rid of those bricks and wall-warts, which he says "result in conversion losses, equaling out to approximately 10-20%, and can lead to a variety of other complications at the grid level."

This is why we have been saying houses should be wired for low voltage DC. For a while, there were questions about what kind of plug to use. But USB-C, for example, can carry up to 100 watts and is common now, carrying both power and information. Getting rid of all those transformers and bricks not only saves energy, but it saves the cost and the embodied carbon of making them all.

The flip side of our devices needing so much less energy to run is that it is much easier to generate and store the electricity needed. For example, for years green websites have been showing gym equipment like exercise bikes with generators built-in. It was never very useful because the things we owned used a lot of electricity.

Toaster legs

Screen Capture, Internet Archive

In 2015 we wrote in an archived post about how much energy it takes to make a piece of toast, with an Olympic cyclist Robert Förstemann exhausting himself to continuously generate 700 watts of power to run a toaster. This was not going to make much sense in our homes today.

Home setup with bike


But Radewych doesn't need 700 watts. Many of us at home during the pandemic have been cranking out 100 watts on our exercise bikes, and our lightbulbs draw 10 watts. We can store it in batteries. That's what's so intriguing about Radewych's little setup here. It's got a little solar panel out on the balcony, an exercise bike, and a panel on the wall with sockets for off-the-shelf Ryobi power tool batteries that you can buy at any hardware store. Now everyone can have their own little DC microgrid.

Radewych told Sustainable Biz in an interview:

"Our goal is to create as many GEPs (green energy producers) as possible that can easily plug and play into the DC microgrid, eventually empowering people to use these GEPs to create green energy which plugs into the DC microgrid. The end goal is to empower ‘people’ to become green energy producers and to do their part in helping create a greener planet."

Radewych does not have thighs like Förstemann, so toast, stoves, and fridges remain a problem. But it does create a diversity of sources, and increases resilience: When the power goes out, you can keep warm by cycling and charge your phone and lights at the same time.

Microgrid setup from balcony


We have long argued that net-zero is the wrong approach—that you should instead reduce demand by insulating so that you don't need much heating or cooling at all, and by going with stuff that needs almost no power, like LEDs. Radewych's DC microgrid for your home demonstrates that the 400 pounds of copper wiring in our homes is superfluous and extravagant. All those wall-warts and transformer bricks are unnecessary; we can do almost everything outside of the kitchen with thin wires, little batteries, little solar panels, and an hour on our bike.

This is still a thought experiment, but the home of tomorrow might run on pedal power.