We've been living and breathing our human power project for so long now that we've lost our outsider's perspective. Not everyone is as clued-up on what we're doing. This may be the first time you've heard of microgeneration. It's probably the first time you've heard of Energym. We say that we believe human power can be a valuable contributor to the energy network, but what does that even mean? And what does any of this have to do with an indoor fitness bike?
Microgeneration is small-scale energy production. The power produced in this way often only amounts to a fraction of what a coal-fired power plant or nuclear power station generates. It's one reason that human power is so easy to dismiss: the amount of electricity created is much smaller by comparison. It's true of the RE:GEN. The average workout generates enough electricity to charge an iPhone 12 fourteen times. Great for the individual user. It's free electricity, you can hold it in your hands and take it with you throughout the day. No other indoor bike can do that. But it's a drop in the ocean for the UK's energy needs.
With this many gym members in the UK, if they all cycled on an Energym bike for an hour...
The average person would create 220 Watts in that hour...
That would be enough to power a small city for a day.
When we talk about human power as a renewable energy source able to contribute to the national grid and further diversify the UK's energy mix, we mean installing our technology into commercial gyms and fitness centres.
This is starting in early 2022.
You'll see Energym's technology in 5 UK gyms before we roll out across the country later in the year. Gyms are where the real potential for human power lies. Large commercial gyms often run up to five indoor cycling classes each day. Imagine the power generation of thirty highly motivated users riding in a competitive instructor-led class in addition to static bikes located in high traffic areas on the gym floor.
The strength of our gym approach isn't in a single bike but in having a bank of them spread over multiple locations. Used regularly by members, this equipment will generate more power in a shorter period than an at-home bike. The technology requires no change in behaviour by the member, either. They just work out as normal.
Energy-generating gym bikes aren't new. It's just they've never been as efficient or as affordable as Energym's technology. Our engineers have researched and developed a patent-pending generator system able to create and store more power than has been previously possible.
There's power in numbers. That's why it was so important that the technology rewarded business owners for investing in a clean energy option.
The generator can be added to a gym's existing stock of indoor bikes. Business owners don't need to replace the equipment they already own. It provides an ideal counter to an argument made by critics that human power is only small-scale energy production.
Human power is small scale but it's also low-impact which means it can be scaled-up easily and quickly. The more gyms that adopt the technology the greater the clean energy generation. And what could be easier than doing that with the equipment, the people and the floorspace you already have?
Retrofitting the technology onto existing equipment makes the upfront cost more affordable for the business owner. It gives them an incentive to be greener by providing a faster return on investment. It's great for the network, too. Excess power can be pushed back into the grid to support demand during peak periods.
The UK has over 7000 gyms with more than 1 million members. The industry has the potential to generate a significant amount of clean electricity without any of the same disadvantages associated with traditional forms of energy generation such as the building and maintenance of expensive and expansive infrastructure or environmental destruction. It also puts clean energy decisions into the hands of the business owner rather than the landlord.
For gyms, this last part is particularly important. Most gyms operate from commercial premises on short-lease contracts. Alterations to the building - including adding solar arrays to a roof - must be authorised and financed by the building's owner.
Electricity generating gym equipment needs only a small amount of available floor space to work. And unlike solar arrays, can easily be moved between locations when necessary.
Gyms might be where the power generating potential lies but we also wanted to give people the chance to create clean energy in their own home.
Pedal, charge and power from home
Energym launched the RE:GEN in June 2021.
One of the bike's biggest selling points is that it captures and converts human power and turns it into usable electricity. But obviously, an at-home bike will generate less energy than a bike in an indoor cycling class or fitness centre.
At-home users are unlikely to ever generate enough free clean power to earn back the price of the bike. It's why the RE:GEN is primarily an indoor cycling bike. One designed to incentivise users to commit to a regular exercise routine. It does this by offering digital rewards through Sweatcoin as well as through added tech: the Ohm's personal power meter, compatibility with Zwift and personalised AI-generated workouts.
And the more people that exercise using the RE:GEN, the more the clean energy adds up and is ready to use in the home or get pushed back into the grid.
Energy doesn't need to come from a single source anymore. Nor should it. Modern energy usage demands a secure energy mix to ensure the network remains efficient and stable even when the demand for electricity is high. Microgeneration doesn't have to compete against other bigger forms of power generation. It can't. But it can contribute. Given enough gym space and with enough take-up by at-home users, human power could be a significant contributor to clean power both in the UK and beyond.
And this isn't the first time that critics have dismissed an underexplored form of microgeneration.
Human power itself is not a solution to the climate crisis, nor do we believe it will be. It is however another step in the right direction and should be used in tandem with other solutions such as solar.
Solar panels are now a common sight on the roofs of homes and businesses. The arrays reduce energy bills by generating power from sunlight and storing it inside battery units ready for the home or business to use. Excess power gets sold back to the grid to support demand at busy periods.
But solar arrays weren't always popular. Critics argued that the UK didn't receive enough sunshine to justify the cost or the effort of manufacturing and installing them. And the panels weren't cheap. In the mid-1990s, the average payback period for a solar array was around 60-years. This offered almost no incentive for the average homeowner to take up the technology.
What happened to solar panels has also happened to other newer technologies. Everything from cars, telephones, televisions, computers, and even to common household appliances. The initial cost of any innovation is high but over time as demand picks up and manufacturing costs reduced, the product becomes more affordable to the mass market. And the UK now has more than one million solar arrays. The combined capacity of these panels is equal to 12.2Gw and enough to power three million UK homes. Homeowners can now expect to earn back the cost of an array within 10-years making it a far more attractive and affordable option.
The more panels there are on roofs, the more power generated. The value of the solar panel (as with human power) isn't in the singular but in the collective: the more homes installing solar arrays the more power generated and the bigger the impact on energy demand. Solar panels may once have been both innovative and unpopular but they're now an accepted and popular contributor to the UK's energy needs.
Human power is generated by the end-user. You can charge your mobile phone with the results of your own physical effort, or a gym can power its premises with the efforts of its members. The energy hasn't had to travel far at all.
That's not usually the case. Often electricity will have to travel many miles between the source of its generation (a power plant, for example) and the place where it's needed (home or business).
Power losses are inevitable over larger networks. In the UK, the average is somewhere between 8 and 15%. Much of this loss comes from the Joule effect where energy dissipates as heat inside the conductors.
Generating energy on-site reduces these losses. It also negates any need for the expensive infrastructure required to build and support a modern energy network where electricity must travel over long distances.
Compare that to the energy generated in the flywheel of an indoor bike. The power is transferred to the on-site batteries or to the Ohm battery unit ready to be used.
But it's not only non-renewable power that requires expansive networks of infrastructure. For the UK to be entirely dependent on solar panels it would need to cover 12% of its landmass with solar arrays. Wind turbines require open flat land, hills or positions close to the coast to be efficient; they need land, too. Hydroelectric power dams can devastate local populations (both wildlife and human). But human power inside a gym space or within a home requires only a small footprint.
With microgeneration, you know where your electricity has come from. Users of the RE:GEN generate it themselves. Members generate power for gyms. But what about when our electricity comes from the network?
Most of us understand the environmental consequences of generating electricity from non-renewable energy sources. Burning fossil fuels has had (and continues to have) a devastating effect on the environment, so you don't have to be a card-carrying placard-wielding Greenpeace activist to know that clean energy is a good thing.
Power companies see this as an opportunity to tap into a more environmentally conscious market. They can attract new customers and will often charge a higher rate for switching people to a green tariff.
The UK doesn't generate enough clean energy to run the entire network on renewable power alone. Power companies must still rely on the electricity generated from coal-fired stations or nuclear power plants to supply demand. So, on a green tariff, a power company will promise either to offset all or a proportion of a customer's energy use by matching that amount with renewable energy. It creates the illusion that power companies are investing in clean energy options.
But can we be sure that the energy we're getting is green?
Green energy comes with a certificate that proves its eco-credentials. Unfortunately, it's easy to separate these certificates from the original source and then repurpose them to certify non-renewable energy. This is known as greenwashing: when a company pretends to be eco-friendlier than it is. This is relatively widespread across the industry.
Campaigners want to close this loophole and insist on regulation. They argue energy suppliers should be honest about where their power comes from so that energy consumers can use their buying power to help the environment rather than undermine it. Generating your own power is one way of always knowing where your power has come from.
You can hold the electricity in your hands or keep it inside the battery to use later.