Correction Appended: December 2, 2010
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 Green Microgym, a 3,000-sq.-ft. (280 sq m) gym that opened in 2008 and has more than 200 members, is doing so well that owner Adam Boesel has started franchising. His first outlet opened five miles from the original on Nov. 15. Although membership costs about the same as conventional gyms, customers get to brag about their green cred and can earn gift certificates from local businesses for watts generated while exercising. An average workout creates 37.5 watt hours, which, according to Boesel, is enough to power a phone for a week. The gym does not yet generate enough electricity to be carbon-neutral, but if all the equipment gets used at one time, it can produce twice as much as it needs to run the facility at any given moment.
Boesel uses elliptical machines and recumbent and upright bikes made by Resource Fitness, a Seattle company he co-owns that captures energy produced from the flywheel. Cords send the converted AC current into any standard wall outlet hence the product line's name, Plug Out and the energy created is automatically used before the building draws power from the grid.
Unlike the Green Revolution equipment, Plug Out machines cannot store surplus energy. A third company, the Florida-based ReRev, is adding converters to a specific brand of elliptical machines. They have been installed in 30 sites nationwide, according to Glen Johansen, vice president of sales. But since the converters add $1,000 to the price of the equipment, the ReRev and Green Revolution machines come with a considerable cost hurdle.
Resource Fitness, by contrast, sells its equipment for the same $1,200 price as non-electricity-generating machines, removing the question of how long it will be until the energy savings pay for the cost of the unit. The company can afford to do this because its designs don't call for the extra wiring needed for battery packs and large converters. It is also trying to price competitively with standard equipment so more gyms and gymgoers will make the switch. "There are like-minded green thinkers in here," Lara Dilkes, an acupuncturist, says after a workout on an electricity-generating spin cycle at the Green Microgym.
Boesel believes there will soon be many more like her. "Someday this is not even going to be [considered] green," he says while tinkering with a new electricity-creating elliptical machine. "Because this is going to be the norm."
Correction: The original article stated that the Green Microgym could produce 10 times the energy needed to run the facility at any given moment. The gym's owner subsequently said that he had misspoken and that the gym can produce twice as much energy as it needs to power the facility.