Bike Power, Burning Trash, and the Low-Down on Automakers’ Search for Alt-Fuels

DRAWING: Electric Exercise Bicyclist

In your interview with Ed Begley, Jr. (Conversations, January/February 1996), Begley mentions that he uses his exercise bike for battery energy; could you provide more information about this type of hook-up?

—Annette Lee
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

While Ed Begley, Jr. may have the resources to turn his stationary bike riding into a source of energy in his home, it’s no simple matter. But some technology is available allowing an ordinary exercise bike, a 12-volt battery, an inverter and a small generator to be used to convert muscle energy into electrical energy. The resulting power—not a lot—can run a standard electrical appliance like a television or radio.

Bike engineer David Haaren markets a kit called Muscle Power to Electricity (MP2E), which is specifically designed for a Schwinn DX 900 exercise bike. The kit uses a clamp and plastic chain to connect a generator, which transmits power to the flywheel and then stores it in the battery.

The Real Goods Trading Company of Ukiah, California, which specializes in environmental products and power systems, used to sell a different, less-effective energy conversion kit for stationary bikes, but a lack of sales and dissatisfied customers compelled the company to discontinue the line. Roger Breslin, a renewable energy consultant at Real Goods, says “The kit was too expensive and didn’t do much. If you were a world-class Olympic cyclist, you might get 100 watts out of it, but generally it wasn’t very efficient.”

Interested cyclists can check out Bicycling Science by Frank Witt and David Wilson, and Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation, edited by James McCullagh, for ideas.


Pedal Systems
P.O. Box 6
Westminster Station, VT 05159
Tel: (802) 722-4122

We recently moved to a new county that permits the burning of household trash. What can we tell our neighbors, who for three generations have burned everything, including plastics, to discourage their ingrained habits?

—Lois Ventura
Ohiopyle, PA

There are certainly more effective ways of disposing of our daily waste than burning it. Ordinary garbage contains hazardous wastes, plastics, colored inks, arsenic compounds (in paints and insecticides), and even sulfur dioxide (in leaves and vegetables).

According to the New York State Department of Health, “The toxic chemicals released by burning household trash include benzene, nitrogen oxides, nitric compounds—known as metabolic poisons and carcinogens—and other toxins like hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.” Many of these chemicals can cause asthma, headaches, stomach-aches and irritate sinuses. The most feared outcome from burning trash is the release of carcinogenic dioxins, released when hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms react together during burning.

What’s worse, residential trash doesn’t burn as hot as trash in a municipal incinerator. As such, the National Center for Air Pollution Control says that “lower burning temperatures result in more harmful fumes in the air.” In fact, dioxin emissions from backyard burners tend to be two to three times higher than those regularly allowed out of municipal incinerators.

Consumers can make a difference by composting, reusing and recycling “garbage” items, thereby decreasing our need to dump and burn at all.


New York State Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management
4 Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12248
Tel: (518) 455-3711

Are any of the current automobile manufacturers seriously researching alternative fuel sources for their cars?

—Monica Herrera, Wolverine Lake, MI

Yes, some are. “Ford has been researching and building alternative fuel programs for over 30 years,” says Karen Holtschneider, a spokesperson for Ford Motor Company. “We have vehicle types that run on five major fuel alternatives [including methanol, ethanol, compressed natural gas (CNG), electricity and propane]. Our objective is to design the right fuel for the right vehicle for the right market.”

Current statistics show that nearly 85,000 natural gas vehicles are on the road in the U.S. (mostly in commercial fleets), though there are only about 370 natural gas conversion facilities nationwide. (California houses the most at 39.) Chrysler Corporation has been re-engineering some of its vehicle lines to use natural gas, but development has been slow. The Detroit Diesel Corporation says, “Because of economics and a lack of general widespread fueling infrastructure, the conversion to CNG has had limited progress.” Despite some drawbacks, like large fuel tanks and high costs, natural gas meets emission standards and is one of the most abundant fuels in the world.

Other alternatives are still being explored by manufacturers—such as Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Volvo and Isuzu—that are trying to meet the fuel requirements imposed on fleets by the Energy Policy Act of 1992. General Motors plans to unveil a new ethanol-fueled automobile called the E85 flexible fuel vehicle in 1998, and an electric pickup truck for commercial fleets in 1997.


National Alternative Fuels Hotline
P.O. Box 12316
Arlington, VA 22209
Tel: (800) 423-1363