Students Aim to Harness Energy From Elliptical Machines in RSF

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Correction Appended

Few gym-goers, racing against the treadmill belt or pedaling up a simulated hill, consider the energy required to power their daily workout - most are looking to reduce their waistlines, not their carbon footprint. But starting this summer, Berkeley patrons can do both.

UC Berkeley senior Maha Haji is leading a student-run project - supported mainly by the campus Green Initiative Fund - to harness the human-generated energy created from exercise by retrofitting the elliptical machines at the campus Recreational Sports Facility to help cut back on its electricity consumption. And Haji said she hopes to eventually set up and power iPod charging stations on the stationary bikes.

"(Users) can feel how much energy they're outputting," Haji said. "It's a little more direct result of your workout rather than losing weight."

For over a decade, frequent exercise has been championed as the silver bullet of health woes, but it was not until recently that people realized gyms may be exacerbating environmental health woes. Like most gyms, the RSF, with its whirring machines and buzzing lights, racks up a mammoth of an electricity consumption total - over one million kilowatts each year.

Aiming to change this, Haji and her team of over 15 students, many mechanical engineering students, are currently working to build a prototype, which they hope to complete by the end of this semester. By replacing the built-in resistance in stationary bikes and ellipticals with a micro-inverter, the power created from the movement of the machines can be converted back into reusable power.

The average person can generate about 100 watts of energy while working out, although that number varies with the intensity of the workout. The retrofitting could reduce the facility's energy consumption by 10,000 kilowatt hours a year, which, according to Haji, is enough to power a small house. But because the RSF is so large in both area and usage - about 100,000 square feet serving around 3,000 users daily - this only covers 1 percent its total usage.

Nevertheless, the UC Berkeley project continues, looking primarily to educate people about their electricity usage and its effect on the planet.

Haji estimated that each machine would cost about $1,000 to retrofit and would be financed mainly by grants from the Green Initiative Fund - a campus program supported by student fees that provides money for projects that make the campus more sustainable.

Meanwhile, initiatives like this one, exploiting the energy produced from human movement, continue to pop up across the nation.

In Portland, Oregon, the Green Microgym uses solar panels and exercise machines to capture human-generated energy, thereby minimizing the facility's energy usage and costs. Adam Boesel, founder and owner of the facility, which has been open since 2008, said it uses 85 percent less energy and creates 60 percent fewer carbon emissions than a typical gym of its size.

"It doesn't take energy from the grid; it gives energy back," he said. "Our gym is the first gym whose whole mindset is to make electricity."

In 2009, Oregon State University retrofitted 22 elliptical machines, and although the energy reduction is modest, like UC Berkeley's would be, Oregon State Sustainability Coordinator Brandon Trelstad said the project was definitely worth it.

"It's not just about the power produced but the awareness about conservation," he said. "It's valuable."

At his campus, he said, most users gravitate towards the machines that have been retrofitted. Similar results are expected at UC Berkeley - a survey of RSF users last year revealed that people would prefer to use the machines that harnessed energy.

"We know that our community of users are interested in treading lightly on the planet," said Eric Craypo, communications director for the Department of Recreational Sports at UC Berkeley. "I like the idea of getting a workout and adding something back to the grid at the same time."


Correction: Friday, February 25, 2011
The Feb. 7 article "Students Aim to Harness Energy From Elliptical Machines in RSF" incorrectly stated that energy consumption totals were measured in kilowatts. In fact, energy is measured in kilowatt hours.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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