Generating green energy by bike

If you were one of the people following my limited edition miniseries blog Climate Ridin, you know I’ve been obsessed with the concept of generating electricity as I bike to charge up my gear. I tried doing it on the cheap for the 2011 California Climate Ride with a bottle dynamo hooked up (poorly) to a headlight with a battery backup and USB port. You would think a bunch of fellow tree-hugging greenies on bikes would embrace my attempt at alternative energy production, but the ones that commented mostly complained it was too noisy. This was fine because the ferocious resistance the bottle dynamo had on my tire meant I couldn’t keep pace with them to annoy them through the redwoods. The wire leads were also incredibly wonky… For the most part, the only thing reliable about them was the metaphysical certainty that they would pull out of the dynamo connectors every mile or two. Additionally, the current was incredibly inconsistent, which iPhones don’t like (to anthropomorphize an Apple product, which has never been done before). Experiment was over after Day 1, and the dynamo became the problem of the thief who stole my bike a month later.*

sanyo dynohub

So, for 2012 I chose storage over generation: an enormous 12000 mAH battery was enough to charge an iPhone 4 from 0-100% close to three times. It was plenty for the OR/CA trip with MJ (which reminds me… MJ update below), but still required awkward campsite bathroom outlet recharges or extended coffee shop pitstops. When you are sitting on something that can generate power as you pedal, and you’re a tech tool like me… Well, I had to revisit bike-based electrical generation again.

I give you… the dynohub. Forget the old fashioned bottle dynamos… Dynohubs are integrated into your wheel so there’s no more fiddling with tensioners or worrying about friction melting your tires or your generator. Electrons flow with every revolution of the wheel.

That, however is just step 1. You see, most devices are finicky about their electricity. They need those little electrons to come in a particular way or they won’t fire up (or they’ll fry, but that’s another story). Also, because the current coming from a dynohub is necessarily inconsistent (stop, start, go, fast, slow… This all changes the flow), just having a dynohub is not enough to be useful for the gadget charging wannabe. Many lights can hook directly into them, and until recently that was about it.

LightChargerA few crafty manufacturers tapped into the dynohub-as-a-power generator-for-devices idea, most notably Busch and Muller‘s eWerk (love the Germans) and Tout Terrain‘s The Plug and The Plug II: Electric Boogaloo (not really on the electric boogaloo part, but let’s face it: that was a TOTAL missed opportunity). Both devices act as power converters; the eWerk is super sophisticated while The Plug is super elegant. Both were available in Europe only for a while, then found their way stateside last year. I nearly bit on the purchase of The Plug in France, but backed off… Pretty pricey and I wasn’t totally sure I wanted an integrated solution.

As the interest seems to be climbing amongst touring and commuting cyclists, cheaper dynohubs are coming on the market and a few US companies are taking a crack at converters. I found CA-based Bike2Power‘s LightCharge recently and was amazed at how much less expensive it was compared to the European alternatives. Paired with the well-reviewed, but substantially cheaper Sanyo dynohub on a new wheel (thanks eBay seller guy!), what was once a $400+ venture with a SON dynohub and an eWerk dropped to about $150. That was worth the flier…

A few thoughts so far after a yet ride:

it works

– dude, it totally works.

– the connections are standard Shimano connections, so no need to buy anything else. You’ll want to be a little handy with wiring, but by no means do you need to have an engineering degree.

– the LightCharge has a dual switch system that allows for charging either a USB device OR wired lights. I still like my current light system enough as is, so I didn’t hook anything up to that wiring system. Nice to have that option if I change my mind.

– iPhones are finicky beasts. If you slow down to a point where the voltage threshold drops below what the phone needs to charge, it will throw up the dreaded “this device isn’t made to charge me” alert and seems to refuse to charge. I say seems because I believe a speed up will resume the charge, but the charging indicator doesn’t come back – so it’s hard to know for sure. I found switching the LightCharge from USB to lights and back again at speed reset things, as evidenced by the ever pleasant “hey I’m charging!” bleep coming from the iPhone.

– I plan on acquiring a USB chargeable battery to act as a power sink rather than directly charge the phone. This way I know every rotation of the wheel will be converted into energy I can use later. It also gives some charging flexibility for other devices that can hook into the battery, plus if there’s an issue I’d rather fry a battery than a phone.

iPhone charging from dynamo

– Security is a bit of an issue. Dynohubs are obvious to a thief that knows what he’s looking for. I’m considering a Pitlock combined with a cable lock for the wheels. The LightCharge is the thing I may need to leave exposed. It’s possible to remove every time, but it would be a pain. I may consider splicing the line up by the main device and putting in plug connections so I can unplug and leave just the wiring, but that might be more trouble than it’s worth. I’m open to thoughts on that.

– I went with a cheaper option, so it’s entirely possible the hub or the LightCharge could die on me sooner than a higher priced component. We’ll see. The Sanyo gets consistently great reviews (see here, for example) and although the LightCharge doesn’t have the same volume of reviews, I haven’t found one that says it sucks. So there’s that.

– unlimited juice means I can run battery sucking GPS apps and stream audio like a fool. If I have a signal, I can do a whole hell of a lot more on tours now.

Basically, it rocks. Looking forward to testing it for real this winter.

Quick MJ update… MJ’s off to greener pastures in San Francisco come January. The good news is I’m sure we’ll ride together again on tour… The bad is our rides will be far less frequent. We both started bike touring about the same time, and if I’ve learned one thing it’s that you may separate from the people you cross paths with on tour, but you oddly tend to find them again down the road. I think the same will be true with the mysterious one. Also, I think he’ll probably let me crash at his place, and I love me some San Francisco.

Happy holidays… I’m taking a week off between Christmas and New Years so maybe I’ll write another stupid long post that week too.


*This along with the busted saddle. I hope that hurt, jackass.