Seattle Start-Up PlugOut Converts Exercise into Electricity
How a SoDo start-up is turning your gym into a generator.
WORKING OUT IS, quite literally, a huge waste of energy. While you pedal off the pounds on a stationary bike, you can produce enough power to charge your smartphone for a week. But because most exercise equipment can’t convert that energy into electricity, it burns off as heat instead of juicing your BlackBerry.
Adam Boesel didn’t want to solve the world’s energy woes when he started tinkering with tech that could harness that power three years ago. He just wanted to green up his Greenwood gym and corner the untapped “eco-conscious fitness fiends” market. His first attempt—a spin bike that powered a generator that charged a battery bank that ran a laptop—got him some press in the Post—Intelligencer, but it was crude and inefficient. So he tinkered some more. He Googled. He read up on converting direct current to alternating current. And then late in 2008 he discovered a component—he won’t say what, exactly—that he thought might allow him to plug a bike into the wall and zap the electricity it produced directly into the grid. So he hooked it up. He tried it. And it worked.
By then, Boesel had moved to Portland and was busy launching a chain of enviro-friendly gyms (solar panels on the building, energy-efficient ceiling fans, etc.), so he recruited a buddy back in Seattle, Ryan Barr, to turn the idea into a business. And last spring, Barr—who brought on ex-Microsoftie Aaron Bird to refine the technology—began shipping the start-up’s first commercial-grade electricity-generating bike to gyms in the U.S. and Canada. The SoDo-based company, now called PlugOut, also plans to sell a similarly souped-up elliptical and recumbent bike.
A typical spin on a stationary bike can charge your smartphone for a week.
Barr and Bird are the first to admit that their machines will hardly offset a gym’s energy footprint alone; one bike used regularly could knock between $25 and $50 off the annual bill. Instead they’re more interested in changing the electricity-hungry culture of the fitness world. And Boesel, who’s got 10 pieces of PlugOut equipment in each of his gyms, is seeing the results firsthand. “There’s a physical understanding of how much energy it takes to power a stereo or a laptop—you feel it in your legs,” he says. “It doesn’t turn you into a hardcore environmentalist, but it makes you realize, ‘Gosh, it’s really stupid to leave that light on if I’m not using it.’”