Portland Gym Allows Patrons to Power Their Own Workouts

At the Green Microgym in Portland, OR, gym-goers can expect to get a little something more out of their workout than simply feeling the burn. By using special stationary equipment like exercise bikes, ellipticals, and stair machines, the gym generates nearly 40% of its own electricity — and saves 60% on electricity costs. 

The gym uses machines made by Plugout, an American company that produces exercise equipment that harnesses and converts heat waste into A/C electricity. With the equipment, all one has to do is simply plug in the power cord to an outlet, which returns the converted electricity into the building’s electrical supply.

The gym was founded in 2007 by trainer Adam Boesel, who was looking to found an environmental gym and bring the technology of converting exercise into electricity into the mainstream. What he founded was a neighborhood gym that is accessible to most of its patrons by foot or bicycle, and a place that has formed a community with a like environmental mindset. 

But just how much power is generated at the gym? The numbers are certainly impressive. In 2010, the gym generated 36% of its own electricity and saved 85% more electricity than a traditional gym of the same square footage. That 85% — 37,000 Kilowatt hours, to be precise — is equal to 74,000 lbs. of carbon emissions, 81,400 miles not driven by a car, and 15 acres of trees planted.

To look at it from another perspective, though, the impact is just as encouraging. According to the Green Microgym’s website, a vigorous workout can generate up to 50 watts of electricity. To put that in terms of real world applications, 50 watts is enough to power a stereo, two LCD screens, five CFL lightbulbs, five laptops, or even 10 smartphones. 

In addition, Boesel has developed what he calls the “Human Dynamo,” a contraption that consists of four bikes and a crank attached to a generator. If put in use by four users who all pedal and turn the crank, the dynamo can produce between 200 and 600 watts of energy in an hour’s time. 

The Green Microgym sees a workout there as meaning much more than just getting in shape or even seeing how many smartphones one can power in one go on the elliptical. Rather, the gym sees its role as creating a community of individuals “sweating it out together” for a common goal. The gym claims that their clean energy model offers a more meaningful way to work out, both in that one is conserving energy, and also working as a part of something greater and promoting a collective “green” state of mind. 

The gym follows other environmental practices to help conserve energy and boost the awareness of its members, as well. The building also gets power from solar panels, and requires all users to power off the machines when they are finished using them. Members are kept cool by energy efficient ceiling fans rather than air conditioning, and the building also uses only recycled paper products and eco-friendly construction materials. Boesel is also trying to spread the message of the Microgym. He has emerged as an expert on the matter, and offers one-on-one consulting with other like-minded individuals interested in setting up their own gyms.

But the Green Microgym is not the only one that has its patrons help power their own workouts. Two other high profile green gyms include the New York Sports Club in Manhattan and California Fitness Gym in Hong Kong, that operate under a similar guiding principle.

The successes of these gyms would lead one to ask, “well, if this technology is so easy to use and has so many benefits, why isn’t it used by every gym?” The answer to that question lies both in economics, and in that the green gym experience may not be for everyone.  

The technology does not produce enough electricity to pay for itself — according to a study by IEEE. The machines generate an estimated $18 worth of electricity per machine per year, so from that standpoint it is not an economically viable option for many large gyms out there. The size of the gym also plays a role in the type of workout members are seeking. The Green Microgym is a small, basic building without a pool, pristine locker room, steam room, or many of the other amenities that large gyms can offer these days. 

“If you want basketball courts and swimming pools and hundreds of different machines…then you should go to a big gym,” Boesel said in an interview with CNN. 

In the end, though, gyms like the Green Microgym in Portland offer a more rewarding — and important — experience. The world won’t see mammoth chain gyms shutting down any time soon, but gyms like these are building green communities and raising people’s awareness about how much energy they are using — and more importantly, how much energy they have the power to save. The amount of attention these gyms are getting, though, is a sign that they are starting to get people talking. The Green Microgym’s website says that Boesel has been contacted by over a thousand people from all over the world interested in greening their own gyms. With progress like this, neighborhood green gyms look to be on the rise, and could soon be appearing in towns and cities all over the world. Be sure to keep an eye out for one near your home, and soon enough you could be sweating your way to saving energy, as well.

Photo Credit: thegreenmicrogym.com/wp-content/gallery/ap-article/007ap.jpg

Once Near Extinction, Otters on Rise in United Kingdom

A recent trend in England has conservationists smiling. With the sighting if a pair of otters building their homes along the River Medway in Kent, the species, once on the brink of extinction in the United Kingdom, have now been sighted in every county in England. Such an occurrence has not been recorded in over thirty years, and conservationists believe the otter resurgence reflects the increasing health of England’s river systems, and the encouraging progress of the country’s conservation endeavors.

To give a better idea of how far these otters have come, one has to take a look back at the creatures’ history in English ecosystems. During the 20th Century, the range of otters declined by 95% in Western Europe, and because of hunting and pesticide runoff into waterways, the species dwindled onto the border of extinction in England between the 1950s and 1970s.

Then things began to change. In 1978, Great Britain banned otter hunting, and the populations began slowly to creep back up. Once this legislation was coupled with movements to improve water quality in England’s rivers (mostly through the removal of organochlorine chemicals from waterways), more wildlife began to appear in rivers and lakes. Recently, industrial and agricultural businesses, as well as water companies, have reduced the volume of water they’ve extracted from rivers in England. And so behind the combined efforts of these motions, otter populations began their climb, culminating in last week’s sightings in Kent.

While conservationists were monitoring the otter’s progress, they did not think such a renaissance would occur this quick. In Kent, otters were not expected to return to the county for another ten years. In Lancashire, otter numbers have risen 44% from 2008, alone. In rivers passing through metropolitan, industrial areas like Birmingham, Manchester, and Bristol, otters have appeared for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Even in London, there have been otter sightings on the River Thames.

While ecstatic about all the appearances, conservationists are still quick to caution against making the assumption that the sightings correspond to a dramatic rise in otter numbers. It is possible that the creatures sighted are merely roaming into new habitats in search of food. The fact that otters bear only two sets of cubs in their life span, meaning that the species is slow to reproduce, also has led scientists to question how possible it really would be for the population to spread that rapidly. Until conservation groups can collect the population data, it remains unclear whether or not there has been a dramatic statistical change that corresponds with the sightings.

In spite of the doubts, the resurgence of otter sightings speaks volumes toward the well being of England’s rivers. According to the Environment Agency, rivers in Great Britain are at their healthiest in more than 20 years.  

“They are such a beautiful species,” said British naturalist Terry Nutkins. “It’s good news and shows that the rivers are clean and there are more people becoming involved with environmental issues.”

Conservationists view the sightings as progress, but are adamant that Britain still has a ways to go in its conservation efforts, both with otters and with entire ecosystems. The Environment Agency recently received an additional £18 million of funding to put towards river conservation projects, and in regard to the otters specifically, crayfish traps remain a large threat that remains to be dealt with. 

In a day where most ecological news tends to deal with a species being moved from the “threatened” to the “endangered” list, the story of the otter renaissance in England is certainly uplifting news. The otter sightings serve as a benchmark showing how far the health of Britain’s waterways has come in the last 30 or 40 years, which can be attributed to the efforts of the country’s government, conservation groups, and people. Otters are back in England, and with them the optimism that individuals and governments have the potential to revive the well being of the natural world in Britain and beyond.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/2112207670/sizes/m/in/photostream/

13-Year Old Solar Innovator Models Design After Mother Nature

Aidan Dwyer is not like most kids his age. While the majority of his peers are out playing baseball, causing mischief, or nagging their parents, the 13-year old Aidan has been keeping himself busy working on an innovative development in solar design — and he might be on to something. Dwyer’s inventive model taps into biomimicry and the Fibonnaci sequence, and what is now an exciting backyard experiment has the potential to grow into a significant breakthrough in clean energy.

Aidan’s idea all starts with the Fibonacci sequence, a pattern of numbers in which each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. So, 0+1 = 1, and 1+1 = 2, etc, making the very beginning of the sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on. But what do these numbers have to do with solar energy? As Aiden discovered, quite a lot.

When put into ratios, the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence create patterns that coincide with the way in which branches and leaves grow on trees. Inspired by the complex branch formations he observed on a hike in the Catskill Mountains, Aidan figured that this could not merely be coincidence. He concluded that the mathematical pattern dictating leaf and branch formation must have something to do with photosynthesis — there is a reason that plants have evolved into the shape they are, and it would be logical for them to grow in a way that keeps each one out of each other’s shadows and maximizes the amount of energy they can take in.

From there, Aidan got to work designing his first prototype. His work resulted in a tree-like solar array in which a stand supports a number of panels arranged in the Fibonacci pattern. In no time, the experiment turned into an eye-opening realization for not only Aidan, but the solar industry, as well. Aidan’s prototype generated up to 50% more energy in low light than a traditional, flat panel array, since the panels’ positioning allowed them to absorb as much light as possible from the sun, just as a tree in nature would. In addition, Aidan’s design takes up less space than a traditional array, and can collect more light in the shade, or even in adverse conditions like snow. Aidan was also quick to point out another key prospect for his design, citing in his research that the design would be best suited to urban areas where space and access to direct sunlight is often difficult to come by.

Aidan’s project was impressive enough to snag him the Young Naturalist Award of 2011, presented by the American Museum of Natural History. But what possibilities does the innovation have in the grand scheme of things? That still looks to be up in the air. Aidan’s results have already been refuted, as a report by Smart Planet dissected Aidan’s results and came to the conclusion that they might not be as impressive as first reported. The article cites a UC San Diego environmental engineering professor as saying that Aidan measured the voltage, and not the current, of his device, and suspected that the correct numbers would not in fact be as impressive. The article claimed that at the time of day in which there is the most sunlight, a traditional solar array would produce more energy than Aidan’s model because of its direct facing towards the sun.

In spite of this convincing criticism, though, Aidan’s design cannot be written off entirely. His design has an advantage over flat panels in the morning, when several of the panels would be at a position to get more sunlight from the rising sun. Most importantly, the design is only at its nascent stages. Aidan is not alone in his ideas, as a number of leading solar companies have been searching for ways of mimicking trees. Aidan has a patent on his design, and is reportedly attracting attention from a number of companies eager to further investigate his idea and bring the design into commercial use. Aidan’s design won’t revolutionize the solar industry or start popping up on homes all over the world anytime soon, but his work is significant in that it is a remarkable example of human ingenuity, and may have the potential to spark something greater if more advanced engineers can tap into his theory and develop his prototype. His work is truly amazing and ingenious, and only time will tell if what he has uncovered can impact the way in which we power our lives. 

Overall, not bad for a 7th grader.

Photo Credit: treehugger.com/files/2011/08/13-year-old-makes-solar-breakthrough-with-fibonacci-sequence.php

Sustainably Tapping the Rainforest for Biofuel

Can a sugar palm tree hold the key to combating the most pressing concerns in the rainforests of Southeast Asia? World famous biologist and conservationist Willie Smits thinks so, and has a $100,000 grant from National Geographic in his pocket to pursue what may prove to be a monumental breakthrough in the rain forest regions of the world.

With strategic planting of the Arenga sugar palm, Smits and his company, Tapergie, believe that the trees of the Indonesian rainforest can become a productive and sustainable source of biofuel  — a plan not many would expect from a man who has devoted his life to protecting the area’s biodiversity. But what makes Smits’ hypothesis so encouraging is that, unlike past biofuel endeavors that have led to devastating clear-cutting, his plan would tap the forests for energy while protecting the environment, providing jobs, and increasing food security in the region.

It would seem logical for such a system to be complex and impractical, but Smits’ project is remarkably straightforward in theory: plant the Arenga in the forest, and then tap (not cut down) the tree for its sugary juice, which can produce alcohol and ethanol, as well as an organic sugar. Smits refers to the process as “basically only harvesting sunshine.” Picture tapping a maple tree for syrup, except in this case it’s empowering local communities, providing a sustainable energy source, and preventing the deforestation of one of the world’s most precious ecosystems.

Smits’ remarkable concept centers around the Arenga, or “the most amazing tree I’ve ever run into,” according to Amory Lovins, the chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute and a part of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge advisory board. The palm is perfectly suited to grow in Indonesia’s rainforests. It can grow without fertilizer, is drought, pest, and fire-resistant, and has deep roots that allow it to flourish on the steepest of slopes.

These features, however, only scratch the surface of all that the Arenga can do. The tree is an extremely efficient photosynthetic plant, meaning that it can produce year-round and consistently be tapped for its resources. By the numbers, Smits’ projections for the Arenga’s output are just as staggering. He claims that the process has the potential to create 6,300 gallons of ethanol per hectare each year. To put this in perspective, the USDA’s latest yield figures state that corn currently produces 1,100 gallons of ethanol per hectare. Sugar cane in Brazil yields 1,500 gallons per hectare and also pales in comparison to the Arenga’s productivity. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the sugar palm cannot grow in a monoculture much like corn is planted row after row for as far as the eye can see in the American Midwest.

For what Smits’ system could do for renewable energy, it could do just as much for the local infrastructure of remote communities in the rainforest region. The Arenga can be tapped twice a day and requires constant tending. Smits believes that the job cannot be done my machine, but rather must be done by trained workers who know how to properly tap the tree and efficiently preserve its emissions. Thus, the system would boost employment in some of Indonesia’s most remote areas. Smits hopes to model these systems after Tapergie’s three-year-old facility in Tomohon, Indonesia, which has not only employed over 6,000 workers, but also runs on geothermal energy and provides its biofuel to the immediate area to run vehicles and generators. Smits envisions adapting the principles of the Tomohon facility to be suitable for the more remote communities scattered throughout most of the rainforest that live without electricity, safe drinking water, or much education. He believes that his centers can become hubs in these regions, providing jobs, education, and a sustainable base for a number of developments to improve villages’ quality of living.

Conservation and the production of biofuel have traditionally seemed incompatible when dealing with the delicate and irreplaceable rainforest region. Previous attempts to produce energy from the Indonesian rainforest as a way of reducing carbon emissions backfired horribly. The hope of producing biofuel from oil palms only led to the clear cutting and razing of forest in favor of converting land for monocultures. Not only did the system fail to deliver the desired biofuel production, but it rocketed Indonesia up the rankings of greenhouse gas emitters, placing the country only behind China and the United States.

One of the first people to recognize the dangers of this manner of biofuel production was Smits, and now he is poised to lead the charge into a much more promising system that aims to offset previous failures and then some. With the $100,000 grant, Smits will create a prototype system to put his hypotheses to the test. If successful, Smits’ concept has the potential to bring monumental change to the Indonesian rainforest and the world as a whole.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/wak1/32998947/sizes/z/in/photostream/