Exercise Machines Will Not Power the World


Treadmill runner 

It seems like a brilliant green-power scheme: Capture the unharnessed energy created by people working out in health clubs. But there’s a problem with this plan, contends IEEE Spectrum’s Tom Gibson after crunching the numbers: The actual energy gains are small, especially in relation to the cost of retrofitting existing gym equipment.

Consider, for instance, how long you’d need to pedal a stationary bike to power a clothes drier for an hour, for instance: About 40 hours. You could power a coffee maker with 10 hours of riding, or a laptop computer with about 30 minutes of bike time. Ultimately, Gibson concludes, exercise-generated power wouldn’t offset much of a health club’s energy use, and its long payback time doesn’t make much economic sense either:

So are these electricity-producing exercise machines merely a marketing gimmick, something to make gym patrons feel good about their workouts? At the moment, that would seem to be the case. Gyms that have embraced the technology say that by advertising themselves as greener than regular gyms—and gyms are notorious power hogs—they can attract environmentally conscious consumers. And if enough customers choose that gym rather than another one down the street, the initial investment will pay for itself much faster.

Gibson goes a bit overboard in his zeal to debunk the green-gym folks—did he really need to include charts showing that exercise bikes cannot in fact power the nation?—but at least he lets supporters have their say. Three U.S. companies are working to market the technology, and to defend themselves from doubters like Gibson:

Backers of the technology respond by comparing the current cost of these machines with that of technologies like compact fluorescent bulbs or solar and wind power, which many people doubted would ever take off. They claim it’s only a matter of time until every exercise machine comes equipped with a generator. And with some 30,000 gyms in the United States, that would mean millions of machines—and many more in people’s homes—whose combined energy would then be appreciable.

Source: IEEE Spectrum 

Image by maHidoodi, licensed under Creative Commons. 

9/2/2011 9:28:32 PM

I second the thoughts of hollisterrox, and would like to add the conversation, the concept that the efficiency and design of exercise machines is in way similar to that of inovation in automobiles. To slap on a generator as an environmental after thought is fine, but to think of examples like flywheel technology, as there is an advantage to having 20+ speeds on a road bike why not add them to an exercize bike that would spin a weighted flywheel/generator at a much higher rate (hopefully even after the gym patron got off the bike).Machines like treadmills seem to consume a great deal of energy, as the heavy duty motors needed to drive the belt use quite a bit, which could lead to either a drastic change in design or just different machines or just better places to run 'out of the elements' w/o machines. Regardless of machine design there needs to be a green revolution in building design and for the lighting, HVAC and water heating (biggest energy hogs) to be considered as part of the design, not an afterthought solved with pumping loads of energy into them. More thoughts there...but I will hold off. Perhaps strapping an electric motor to a big gas guzzling SUV sounds like it helps, but I believe that it just helps to perpetuate gas guzzling SUVs, until something better comes to replace them... Ideas anyone?

8/29/2011 4:48:26 PM

I feel like there are a couple of problems with power generation from gym equipment, and a couple of problems with the critique from Mr. Gibson. First off, converting all energy into electricity isn't necessarily ideal. couldn't mechanical bikes or other equipment be used to pump air around the gym? I'm certain that uses a ton of energy. Conversion from one form of energy to another always has a penalty, so keeping the mechanical energy mechanical is probably a good idea. Secondly, having everyone drive to the gym so they can generate electricity is really backwards, we would probably be better served to encourage home generation schemes, perhaps by making DC power inputs required on home appliances which would make it easier for people to hook up an exercisbe bike to their TV or XBox, etc. Now, about the critique of Mr. Gibson: First, most importantly, this scheme doesn't have to solve all our energy problems all by itself! In fact, that is the least helpful mindset we can have, there isn't a likely silver bullet out there that will fix all our energy woes. Second, retrofitting might not make much sense, but all new gyms going forward should certainly look at this technology both for marketing benefits and for actually reducing their overhead. Old equipment can continue to function just as it has, there need not be a rush to replace everything. Sorry for the wall of text, I don't see how to add carriage returns.?.

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