Image: Bryn Nelson
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 9/1/2008 1:32:22 PM ET 2008-09-01T17:32:22

Adam Boesel isn’t quite ready to light up his neighborhood with a legion of electricity-generating exercise bikes, much less his own gym.

But the owner of the Green Microgym in Portland, Ore., hopes his people-powered approach toward energy generation — the first of its kind in the nation — could make a dent in his business’s carbon footprint.

Among the more unusual features at the Green Microgym, which opened Friday, is a four-person machine called Team Dynamo, which harnesses the collective power of exercisers as they pedal and turn hand cranks. Unlike with spin bikes, the added hand cranks are designed to provide rigorous upper-body workouts — as well as yield additional electricity.

In addition to the Team Dynamo, Boesel has re-engineered a small motor to capture the pedal power from a trio of spin bikes and generate electricity for the gym’s television and stereo system. A more sophisticated version, he said, could be scaled up for larger spaces.

The total output is small but not insignificant — initially, Boesel believes the Team Dynamo and his modified spin bikes could collectively generate about 1,000 watts per hour. But beyond the modest boost in member-generated power, Boesel also hopes to encourage patrons to reconsider how they can reduce their own electricity use while trimming their waistlines.

People power
As a personal trainer with a dream of opening a neighborhood gym,Boesel began thinking about how his idea might stand out from other health clubs. At first, he set his sights on more traditional measures like installing solar panels. But then he read an article in an entrepreneurial newsletter about how Hong Kong’s California Fitness gym had begun generating electricity from 13 spin bikes and elliptical machines as a pilot project.

“This Hong Kong gym showed that at the very least, it’s possible,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot of extra money to do, so I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ and I just started doing it.”

Portland’s Green Microgym is the first commercial test site for the Team Dynamo machine, made by Henry Works Research and Development. The El Paso, Texas-based company also makes a one-person Human Dynamo machine, which has begun popping up around the country. An early prototype even made its way to the U.S. Ski Team’s training facility in Park City, Utah.

President Mike Taggett, who has a background in alternative energy, has spent much of his time figuring out how much power an exercising person can generate over a sustained period of time, and how that electricity-generating process might be made more efficient. “Fifty percent is fairly basic,” he said, “but we could get to 60, 70, and maybe as much as 75 percent efficient.”

Taggett’s Human Dynamo, a single modified spin bike with a hand crank, can deliver a full-body workout while generating a net electrical output of about 50 watts per hour.

The more complicated Team Dynamo version, which Boesel has at his gym, consists of four machines bolted together with a common driveshaft that propels an electrical generator. On the low setting, Taggett said, four people could produce in excess of 150 watts per hour. On the high setting and with seasoned athletes, the system could yield maybe 400 watts per hour, while sprints could produce bursts of 700 to 900 watts.

For each Dynamo, about 70 percent of the power output comes from pedaling, with the rest supplied by turning the hand crank. During each exercise session, an LED display shows the wattage and calculates the average watt-hours every five minutes, with a final readout revealing the total watt-hour production by the individual or quartet.

At the moment, an “off grid” system directs the watts toward charging batteries that in turn power an inverter, creating 120 volts of alternating current. Eventually, both Taggett and Boesel would like to see a more efficient “grid tie” system wired directly into the gym’s electrical panel.

If a larger health club followed the same concept using several dozen exercise machines, Taggett said, the power could really start to add up. “It’s very conceivable that a gym could be primarily user-powered during the busy times,” he said.

An unexpected charge
Despite concerns over cost and efficiency, the people-power movement has spawned a growing number of other projects with names like the “Crowd Farm,” which envisions tapping the power of pedestrians or concertgoers on specially designed surfaces .

Even nightclubs are getting into the act, with two competing “eco-disco” groups, Club4Climate and Sustainable Dance Club, both touting new energy-generating dance floors among a laundry list of green credentials. Club4Climate’s Club Surya in London features an energy-production plan based on piezoelectric principles, in which crystals beneath the floor rub together with every enthusiastic dance move, generating an electrical charge that feeds a battery bank.

A European rival, Sustainable Dance Club, has outfitted its Club WATT in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, with a dance floor that instead uses coils and magnets that move with the masses to create an electrical charge. In an e-mail, Sustainable Dance Club spokeswoman Vera Verkooijen said every person on Club WATT’s dance floor will be able to produce 5 to 10 watts of power, depending on their weight and activity level. At the moment, she said, the electricity will stay within the floor and power an interface that includes a glowing energy meter (dubbed the “green ghost”) displaying the floor’s relative power level.

People power may have its limits, though. Beyond the "wow" factor, Sustainable Dance Club representatives have estimated in other news reports that 2,000 clubbers would have to pack the dance floor to power the light system at the club, slated to open Thursday.

The estimated yield of 5 to 10 watts per dancer is about ten-fold lower than the target for Green Microgym’s clientele. But even at top speed, the electricity generated by all of the health club’s exercise equipment may be enough to offset little more than the power consumed by a single treadmill.

Then again, maybe relying on customers to literally power a business isn’t the main point.

Rethinking power needs
“When it comes to talking about ‘people power’ contributing to the daily electricity load that an average person deals with, I think our stance is that those applications would have to become much more efficient for them to make an impact,” said Jeffrey John, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The Old Snowmass, Colo.-based nonprofit organization, which encourages the more sustainable use of resources, emphasizes the importance of improving efficiency, especially for the “low-hanging fruit” of lighting systems.

Even so, John said, “I think there’s a significant impact of people thinking about ‘people power’ to just frame their ideas when it comes to thinking about electricity and electricity needs.”

Boesel couldn’t agree more.

Contrary to a few suggestions, he said, “we’re not going to generate enough electricity to power the community.”

He has found plenty of highly visible ways to cut back on the gym’s electric bill, however, including a 3-kilowatt array of solar panels on awnings above the building’s front windows.

Boesel also brought three ECO-POWR Treadmills that each use a maximum of about 1,000 watts instead of the standard 1,500. Because each still consumes 25 watts while in standby mode, the gym will keep the machines turned off when they are not in use. And instead of lighting entire rooms or turning on banks of overhead fans, members will turn on the lights and fans only above their own workspaces.

“We’re saving electricity in every possible way that we can,” he said. “And as I’ve been doing it, I’ve been finding more and more ways to do it efficiently, effectively and affordably.”

Among Boesel’s other environmentally conscious decisions, he laid recycled rubber flooring in exercise rooms and eco-friendly cork in the yoga room, bought remanufactured or high-quality used equipment, and nixed a showering area to save on water and heating costs.

The lack of showers, Boesel said, is more a function of the space serving as a modest-sized neighborhood gym that most members will likely walk or bike to. “If 90 percent of the gym members don’t need it, maybe we don’t need to have it,” he said.

If the thought of a delayed shower induces grumbling in the remaining 10 percent, Boesel is formulating a plan to make it up to them with a kind of “pedaling for pasta” incentive involving local restaurants: For every hour spent generating electricity on the gym’s spin bikes or Team Dynamo machine, an avid exerciser could earn money in the form of a gift certificate to help fill that rumbling stomach.

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