Every day, thousands of faculty, staff and students determinedly hit the cardio machines, lowering their stress after a tough exam, getting in shape for spring, or working off those chocolate chip cookies that showed up in a care package from home.
But now Oregon State University and a private firm are teaming up to harness the fruits of this student labor by capturing the energy from their workouts – literally.
OSU is now one of the first universities in the country to tap the kinetic energy generated by people involved in daily workout routines and turn it into a form of renewable energy. Using a new technology developed by a company in St. Petersburg, Fla., called ReRev.com, LLC, OSU has retrofitted 22 elliptical exercise machines in its student fee-funded Dixon Recreation Center and already is collecting the power produced by students and feeding it back into the power grid.
The effort will produce an estimated 3,500 kilowatt hours of electricity in a year, according to Brandon Trelstad, the university’s sustainability coordinator.
“Its output could be equivalent to what is needed to power a small, very efficient house,” Trelstad said. “Our ultimate goal is to maximize both the real power output of the system and the learning opportunities gained by having it at OSU, where our students clearly care about renewable energy.”
“This is the start of something very exciting,” said Recreational Sports Director Tom Kirch, during the unveiling of the project on Feb. 18. He said the department is committed to being a steward of its resources, and the energy project fits into that goal.
Kirch said he was proud that OSU was pioneering the effort to combine physical health with energy production.
“This is a technology that is going to have a great impact on our society if we can develop it in a way that is accessible to everyone,” he said.
In 2007, OSU students voted to impose upon themselves an $8.50 per student per term fee to purchase renewable energy for the campus. Since then, about three-quarters of the university’s electricity has come from renewable production.
“OSU students have demonstrated how big student power can be on campus,” said Matthew Pennington, chief of staff for the Associated Students of Oregon State University. “It was a grassroots movement that helped OSU turn green – and this project moves it forward even farther.”
The ReRev technology features a system that has a patent pending called ReCardio that captures and converts the otherwise counter-productive heat energy from exercise machines. Though some businesses or individuals have dabbled with this type of energy conversion, a program on this scale is unusual, Trelstad pointed out.
“A battery-free system like this, tied to the grid, is quite rare,” Trelstad said. “In fact, we’re informed by ReRev – which has done extensive market research – that this is the largest installation of its kind in the world.”
The project, coordinated by OSU’s Sustainability Office and Recreational Sports Department, was supported by OSU students through their student incidental fees committee and by the Energy Trust of Oregon.
“Capturing electricity from exercise machines represents a small, but potentially widely replicable source of energy,” said Jan Schaeffer, special projects manager, Energy Trust. “We’re happy to support OSU in demonstrating the capabilities of this technology. And it’s a perfect capstone for the Corvallis Energy Challenge we’ve promoted over the past year.”
Trelstad said the 22-unit installation just came online and was officially launched during OSU’s Campus Wellness Week, Feb. 16-21. The potential is there for future expansion of up to 40 machines with some additional hardware.
OSU’s popular Dixon Recreation Center is the ideal facility for the system, Pennington said, because of the existing number of machines and high usage rates per machine.
“The center’s workout volume, combined with the large amount of equipment, could eventually produce the same amount of electricity as a small solar photovoltaic system, placing students directly in the renewable energy production chain.”
When students are pedaling for power on these elliptical machines, a real-time display screen shows momentary power production, production to date, production peaks, and other information.
Trelstad said additional energy savings will be realized through lower summer cooling needs for the building. Instead of creating heat as most exercise machines are set up to do, usable electricity will be generated. The power generation will slightly reduce the electrical consumption of the building, much like how a small solar electric system operates, he pointed out.
More important, however, the project has the power – no pun intended – to bring sustainability and renewable energy awareness to students who may never have thought about it in such direct ways.
“This type of involved, hands on learning can be invaluable for students,” said Pennington. “This project will put green power, and new technology directly in contact with students that may have never seen it before. This type of project is one of those that students look at and it just makes sense.
“It has no learning curve, and is easy for anyone to comprehend.”
~ Mark Floyd and Theresa Hogue