Wasted Energy

A lot of good-humored fun was recently poked at President Falk for a picture of him in a suit on an elliptical, but a surprisingly large number of students don’t realize  that the photo is from an old press release that detailed the installation of new technology in Lasell Gym – elliptical machines that are human-powered generators. We decided to research this technology, and in doing so, we concluded that student awareness about this project is not as high as it should be. Therefore, we want to educate and remind students about the technology, and examine the role that human power plays in Williams’ ongoing sustainability and renewable energy projects.

The human power initiative originated during a 2008 course called “Renewable Energy and the Sustainable Campus” (offered again this spring as ENVI 206). As Stephanie Boyd from the Zilkha Center recounted during our interview with her, some students were interested in the idea of human power as a source of sustainable energy and the Zilkha Center took on the project. Boyd and Amy Johns attended a conference on sustainability, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, where they learned about a practical way to implement human power technology. “There was an elliptical connected to two light bulbs,” Johns recounted. “As the elliptical was used, the bulbs lit up.” As a result, Boyd and Johns got in touch with ReRev, the company that had created the technology at the conference, to discuss implementing it at the College.

As ReRev’s website describes it, “Kinetic energy from your workout is converted to DC.”  The DC is then converted into AC and can then be used to power a building. Boyd and Johns both admitted that, the amount of energy produced by the machines is negligible. There are 18 elliptical trainers with ReRev installed, and as the original press release describes, “Six-hundred people working out on machines like this would be required to run the building’s electrical system.” Furthermore, people who prefer to work out on lower resistances contribute less energy.

So what is the purpose of this technology? It does not produce much electricity, so was it merely a waste of money? The technology was expensive, but not prohibitively so; the project cost $15,000, and was paid for by the Zilkha Center’s funds without extra funding from the College.

Johns and Boyd both emphasized during our interviews with them that the value of the ReRev technology was not in the amount of power it produced, but rather in the educational value it provides to the College. Johns said, “It’s extremely important to test and support new technology like this, as it builds comfort in the general sector for these types of projects in the future.”

We agree that the technology is a useful educational tool at the College, but it is not being promoted enough. As Boyd described, most students thought the technology was “cool” when it was first installed, but the stickers on the machines to describe it have since worn off, and the sign in Lasell that explains the benefits of the machines goes “largely unnoticed.” We think that if the purpose of the technology was to be an educational tool, it is incredibly under-utilized.

Boyd explained that the Zilkha Center has entertained the idea of a campus-wide competition to see who can create the most electricity. We strongly encourage the Zilkha Center to enact this idea. Once the student body is exposed to the idea of human power, motivated students in the environmental sciences department might be inspired to do further research into the technology to improve it, to find similar initiatives, and to encourage the student body to continue in their search for renewable energy sources.

We think that the Zilkha Center should connect the human power technology to a broader campus-wide campaign and conversation about renewable energy. Other Zilkha Center projects, such as the solar panels in Science Quad and the installation of solar hot water systems in Lambert, Susan Hopkins and Fort Hoosic,  ought to be promoted more. Education about renewable initiatives on campus can only lead to greater opportunities for students to be actively engaged in sustainability at Williams.

Nathan Barker ’13 is an English and anthropology double major from San Carlos, Calif. He lives in Poker Flats. Emily  Jablonski ’14 is an English major from Madison, Conn. She lives in Williams Hall.

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