Let’s harness the muscle power of 54 million fitness center members to generate electricity

This is a short summary of this 10-page research paper:

Carbajales-Dale, M., et al. 2018. Human powered electricity generation as a renewable resource.  BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality.

Before fossil fuels arrived, we depended on the energy from burning wood to make metals, bricks, ceramics, structures, and other objects, and the muscle power of men and animals to do work. 

We discovered fire at least 250,000 years ago for cooking and warmth.  Hunters and gatherers relied on muscle power when hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering until approximately 12,000–10,000 B.C..   when agriculture began and transformed societies into sedentary villages.  Work animals were domesticated to do the arduous work of plowing. Civilizations with excess muscle power were able to put it to other uses, such as constructing the 13,170 mile Great Wall of China, which probably required 2,000 years and millions of laborers.  In Egypt the great pyramid in Khufu had 2.3 million blocks weighing from 2.5 to 80 tons, which probably took 25,000 laborers at least 20 years to build.

Ways to use energy more efficiently with mechanical devices such as pulley systems, windlasses, tread wheels, and gear wheels were invented that made muscle power go even further.

Now we’re almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels for our unprecedented high quality of life, yet we know fossils are finite and likely to decline. 

So it is time to look again at what we can gain from muscle power, which will have to increasingly replace fossil fuels as they decline.

This has the added bonus of helping to cope with the obesity crisis.  The authors estimate that an average American has 5 pounds of excess fat, which translates to 133,000 GJ of stored energy.  Using human muscle as an energy source has the added benefit of reducing heart disease, strokes, and diabetes.

Gym members comprise a large potential muscle power workforce.  Over 54 million people are members of a fitness center in the U.S. where their potential electricity generating exercise is wasted.  Instead, members do the opposite and consume electricity, since equipment such as treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, and rowers are electric.  And air conditioning to keep members cool uses additional electricity.

This study looked at how much electric power could be generated by 40 members at a gym in South Carolina.

At best, 3-5% of the gym’s average daily electricity demand could be provided at a large cost. To convert the rowing machines to generate electricity would take 33 years to pay back, perhaps longer than a rowing machine will last.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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5 Responses to Let’s harness the muscle power of 54 million fitness center members to generate electricity

  1. Jeorge says:

    Lol — fitness centers and many sports in general really epitomize the developed world’s cushy fossil-fueled way of life; so much labor-saving that masses of people need to engage in the doing of useless work just to stay fit.

    • NJF says:

      I heard rowing, as a motion, is the most efficient motion for humans because it uses the entire posterior chain. Imagine how strong you would be as a slave rowing a boat in Phoenician times? Assuming you had enough to eat and a complete diet.

      • tygertgr says:

        Hominids exist because bipedal walking is the most efficient way to cover a lot of ground. Humans are quintessentially built to walk.

        • Rutger says:

          Perhaps in the natural world, but in our world the bicycle is more efficient still. The downside is that relatively clear paths are required, oh and that small matter of an industrial supply chain. Indeed, getting about by bicycle pretty much meets my cardio needs, but I still have need practice resistance exercises, since I have no need to do much heavy labour. A gym is not required though, e.g. whole bodyweight exercises.

  2. Greg Bell says:

    These ideas come up routinely, and always drive me nuts because simple calculations quickly show how unfeasible they are.

    Or, a YouTube video showing how hard it is to power even a toaster. This dramatic vid is always a short path to energy literacy for my students.