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Pedal really means power at the Hart House gym

The prototype sustainable power plant that University of Toronto professor Olivier Trescases is demonstrating doesn't look like much.  A simple black-box battery connected by clips to red and yellow wires that go to a decades-old electricity meter, then by more exposed wiring into something that looks like an exposed computer motherboard, which is itself attached to a low-fi, normal looking stationary bike. It looks like the kind of exercise equipment someone would have in the corner of a wood-panelled basement, attached to the kind of rig your hobbyist uncle might solder together in the garage.

But according to Professor Trescases, this is an independent, freestanding power plant, the unpolished but working model for a fleet of machines that will simultaneously encourage exercise, reduce carbon fuel usage and toxic emissions and educate people, all while saving money at the same time. "I wouldn't call this high experimental research," Trescases says. "The aim is more education. The greatest benefit of this is awareness. Essentially we want to equate sweat with electrical energy."

That equation was enough to win the project a grant of $10,000 at last year's inaugural Green Innovation Awards presented by the City of Toronto and the Toronto Community Foundation. Electrical Engineering professor Dr. Trescases, Hart House Gym facilities manager Chris Lea and Hart House sustainability coordinator David Berliner shared the award for their idea to harness the energy people waste using exercise equipment and use it to generate electricity. "Each bike is an independent power plant," Trescases says, "each one is individually connected to the grid." Each bike is also able to connect wirelessly to a laptop computer or wireless mobile device to display real-time information about how much energy it is generating, how much it has generated recently and how much money that translates into.

After a minute testing the bike, the value of my own electrical output can be measured in pennies. But the ingenuity of the system works on several levels.

First of all, once a fleet of these green bikes is installed in the Hart House Gym, Lea says, their output will be enough to light the room, saving money and reducing the gym's carbon footprint. Since the bikes harness energy that would otherwise be dissipated into the room as heat, their use could also conserve energy by lowering cooling costs during summer months (although this application will mean something different at Hart House, where the gym is not air conditioned -- so the effect will actually be to cool the room without using money or producing carbon emissions). 

A second effect is that the real-time energy display will create an incentive for exercise -- a motivational tool that can measure the good one is doing for the environment by doing good for their body. Larger displays that aggregate information -- showing the collective output or individual top performers -- will provide further incentive. Gym instructors can use the information feed to design and tweak programs.

And finally, and most importantly, Trescases says, the bike will give people a real measure of what it takes to produce the electricity we consume. And that awareness, he believes, will lead to conservation. "The greatest benefit is awareness," he says. "If you realize that you worked out for an hour in order to generate enough electricity to run your TV for two to three hours, it puts that use into perspective." The incredible efficiency of fossil fuels has spoiled us, he says. Renewable sources cannot reasonably be expected to replace all the energy we use now. "Conservation is the largest untapped renewable energy source," he says. "To produce the same energy we currently get from a $100 barrel of oil would require two years of physical labour from a full-grown person." Solar and wind power, he notes, are closer to the bikes in their output than they are to oil or gas. So as we move away from fossil fuel usage, we'll need to focus on using less energy altogether. And as an educational tool to illustrate our current wasteful usage, the bike goes a long way.

Trescases and Lea say that the next step in production is to produce enough bikes for Hart House Gym's exercise room, and put the whole plan into operation there. Beyond that, on the educational front, Trescases says touring displays for, for instance, high school classes are in the works. On the commercial side, they'll work with a corporate partner to investigate mass-producing the bikes and selling them to other gyms across the continent.

It doesn't look like much right now, but the revolution of the prototype bikes could just be part of a revolution in our thinking about fitness, and the fitness of our current energy use. 

Edward Keenan is Yonge Street's Innovation and Job News editor.

Pictured above (from left to right): Chris Lea, Prof. Olivier Trescases, Andrew Rosselet, Pete Scourboutakos.

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