People-Powered Gyms

This seems so obvious and logical it amazes me that it has taken so long for this trend to take hold. That said, it’s encouraging to see more gyms adopting the concept of people power to generate electricity, along with more companies who are providing the green exercise products.

The Green Microgym in Portland, Ore., has all the usual stuff you’d expect — sweaty people, thump-thumping music, sleek exercise equipment — but it has some extras as well. Everywhere you look, there are power cords. And these aren’t the typical kind that let you surf the Web while you slog away on a spin cycle or elliptical machine — although you can do that too. The gym uses specially configured exercise equipment that captures the energy you create while pedaling, converts it into electricity and channels it into the power outlets.

The idea of using exercise equipment to generate electricity is not new. A gym in Hong Kong has been doing this since 2007. Lots of music festivals have turned to bicycle generators to power their concerts. And some hipster bars are even making customers pedal for a few minutes to get their pitchers of perfectly blended margaritas.

But clean (and healthy) energy is just now starting to catch on in U.S. gyms. There are now converters on exercise equipment in more than 80 locations in North America, including My Sports Clubs in New York City and Washington. “We have seen a significant increase in interest in the past six months, which is a good sign that fitness centers are ready to invest in green technologies,” says Mike Curnyn, co-founder of the Green Revolution, a Connecticut-based firm that wires bikes into a central battery that can store energy.

The article points out there there are a number of different options. Some rig the exercise equipment to channel energy directly to wall outlets, while others like Green Revolution send the energy to storage batteries. Plug Out is a brand that sends the energy directly to a standard wall outlet and the energy created is automatically used before the building draws power from the grid. Other companies are ReRev and Resource Fitness.

Expect this market to explode over the next several years.


How the Bloom Box works

Today is the official unveiling of the Bloom Box by Bloom Energy, so we’ll hopefully be getting more and more information on this innovative new fuel cell.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article that nicely summarizes how the technology works.

In case you’ve not read how the Bloom Box system works, each “power plant-in-a-box” come chock full of thin fuel cells, bundled and packaged into an outdoor-safe case. The individual cells soak up oxygen on one side, “and fuel on the other. The two combine within the cell to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity,” reported CBS last night. “There’s no need for burning or combustion” but it still requires some form of fuel to work. What kind is up to the owner.

“Our system can use fossil fuels like natural gas. Our system can use renewable fuels like landfill gas, bio-gas,” Sridhar says. “We can use solar.”

In some cases, CO2 is still being emitted by whatever power is feeding the Bloom Box. Rather than calling this new device “zero emission energy,” maybe it’s better to think of it as a booster pack for already-green sources and as an impressive new filter for dirty ones.

Also, The New York Times reports that the Bloom Box generates electricity at competitive rates.

Mr. Sridhar said the Bloom Energy Server has been generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour.

In California, where Bloom has installed 30 fuel-cell systems, commercial electricity rates averaged about 14 cents a kilowatt-hour in October 2009, according to the latest figures from the United States Department of Energy. Elsewhere, commercial rates averaged 7 to 24 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Last July, eBay flipped the switch on five Bloom Energy Servers that now supply 15 percent of the electricity at its San Jose, Calif., campus, or about five times as much energy as generated by its 3,248 solar panels, according to Amy Skoczlas Cole, director of the company’s Green Team.

“We’re expecting a three-year payback period,” said Ms. Skoczlas Cole, adding that the calculation includes state and federal tax incentives that halved the price of the fuel cells.

Very impressive!


The unveiling of the Bloom Box

Get ready to hear about the Bloom Box. Beginning with this segment tonight on 60 Minutes, Bloom Energy, a fuel cell company backed with roughly $400 million in venture capital, is unveiling a product that it’s CEO claims can help make the energy grid obsolete. The entire segment is fascinating. On Wednesday the company will have a big press event in Silicon Valley to show off the technology.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

According to Bloom Energy, a Bloom Box is like a small power plant located in your back yard. One of the more fascinating parts of the segment had CEO K.R. Sridhar hold a small stack of plates that he claimed could power a typical American home. If you stack up more of them, you get the Bloom Boxes we saw in the segment that are now being tested by companies like eBay and Google. If everyone has a Bloom Box or something like it, the electrical grid is no longer necessary. That may seem to be far-fetched, but having this option would revolutionize the production of electricity here and around the world.

One innovation seems to be the use of oxygen as opposed to hydrogen, which differentiates this from fuel cells offered by other companies. We’ll probably learn much more in the weeks to come as the world begins to digest the claims being made by the company. How does it work?

Hydrocarbons such as natural gas or biofuel (stored in an adjacent tank) are pumped into the Bloom Box – ceramic plates stacked atop each other to form modules that can be assembled into a unit of any size – and out comes abundant, reliable, cleaner electricity. The company says the unit does not vibrate, emits no sound, and has no smell.

Sridhar, an India-born PhD who once led a team of NASA scientists trying to develop the technology to sustain life on Mars, holds one of the modules in his hand. Stacking them into a bread loaf-sized unit, he says, can produce one kilowatt of electricity, enough to power an American home. Sridhar explains that it has taken so long to produce this contraption because he is building not just a company but an entire industry. “You are used to market sizes that start with a ‘B’,” he told venture capitalists when the company launched in 2002. “This is a market size that starts with a ‘T’.”

This Forbes article goes on to explain that there’s still some healthy skepticism about Sridhar’s claims and they note that the company has lost millions, but that really isn’t relevant. The key here is cost, and if these boxes produce energy cheaply, the sky is the limit.

There are all sorts of rumors about a huge government contract and big orders from other companies, along with possible DOE stimulus funds.

This part of the 60 Minutes segment tells me that the Bloom Box can be a game-changer.

Another company that has bought and is testing the Bloom box so Sridhar can work out the kinks is eBay. Its boxes are on the lawn in the middle of its campus in San Jose.

John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, says its five boxes were installed nine months ago and have already saved the company more than $100,000 in electricity costs.

“It’s been very successful thus far. They’ve done what they said they would do,” he told Stahl.

eBay’s boxes run on bio-gas made from landfill waste, so they’re carbon neutral. Donahoe took us up to the roof to show off the company’s more than 3,000 solar panels. But they generate a lot less electricity than the boxes on the lawn.

“So this, on five buildings, acres and acres and acres,” Stahl remarked.

“Yes. The footprint for Bloom is much more efficient,” Donahoe said. “When you average it over seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the Bloom box puts out five times as much power that we can actually use.”

If costs are that low, the impact might be close to the Company’s aggressive claims.


$3.4 billion in grants to be announced for smart grid

We waste a significant amount of electricity due to an outdated and inefficient electric grid in the United States. Thus, this investment is significant.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce $3.4 billion in government grants to help build a “smart” electric grid that will save consumers money on their utility bills, reduce blackouts and carry power supplies generated by solar and wind energy, the White House said.

It marks the largest award made in a single day from the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress, and will create tens of thousands of jobs while upgrading the U.S. electric grid, according to administration officials.

The grants, which range from $400,000 to $200 million, will go to 100 companies, utilities, manufacturers, cities and other partners in 49 states.

This investment is only the first step, and part of the criteria here was the speed with which companies could implement the changes, as this money comes from the stimulus package. For example, the grants will not be used to build new power lines, but improve the capabilities of the electrical system. The funds will be used for a variety of projects, including approximately “18 million smart meters that will help consumers manage energy use in their homes, 700 automated substations to make it faster for utilities to restore power knocked out by storms and 200,000 smart transformers that allow power companies to replace units before they fail, thus avoiding outages.” Companies had to bid and compete for the funds, and the winning companies secured an additional $4.7 billion in private money to match their government grants, resulting in a total of $8.1 billion in total investment in the smart grid.

The smart meters are critical, as they encourage consumers to use electricity more efficiently. If you can see on your meter that running the dishwasher costs you more during the day, you will consider running it at night instead when rates are cheaper. If you’re costs are spiking during the day, you might realize that you can open the windows instead of running the air conditioner.


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