The great Human Power Plant experiment

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Posted Jun 22 2017 by Sophie Paterson of
Components of the Human Power Plant Components of the prototype Human Power Plant. Illustration by Melle Smets via Low-Tech Magazine.

Taking pedal power to a whole new level, an ambitious project will see the conversion of a 22 floor building into an entirely human powered community of 750 students at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Dubbed the Human Power Plant, Kris de Decker of Low-tech Magazine and artist Melle Smets will lead a team exploring the feasibility of modern human energy production in what promises to be both a technical and social challenge.

So why human power? In his article “Could we run modern society on human power alone?” Kris de Decker writes:

Compared with fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, human power has a lot of advantages. A human can generate at least as much power as a 1 m2 solar PV panel on a sunny day — and as much as 10 m2 of solar PV panels on a heavy overcast day. Human power is a dispatchable energy source, just like fossil fuels. Its power output is not dependent on the season, the weather or the time of the day. In fact, humans can be considered renewable energy sources and batteries at the same time.

Unlike fossil fuels, human power can be a clean energy source, which produces little or no air pollution and soil contamination. Moreover, the potential of human power increases as the human population grows, while all other energy sources need to be shared among an ever-growing amount of people. Furthermore, unlike solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, humans don’t need to be manufactured in a factory. In combination with the right diet, human power is carbon neutral.

Finally, humans are all-round power sources, just like fossil fuels. They not only supply muscle power that can be converted to mechanical energy or electricity, but also thermal energy, especially during exercise: a physically active human being can generate up to 500 watts of body heat. Furthermore, human waste can be converted to biogas and fertiliser. Arguably, human power is the most versatile and most sustainable power source on Earth.

And how exactly will the building work?

According to the building plans, the pre-existing 22 storey building will be converted into numerous distinct sections. There will be a biogas plant in the basement recycling food waste and excrement into additional fuel; 3 floors dedicated to communal energy production;  two floors as communal kitchens; a further two as communal shower and laundry areas; and 15 floors containing the 750 individual student rooms.

In order to enjoy hot showers, power their laptops and use the washing machines, it has been calculated that each student can expect to dedicate an average of 2 to 6 hours each day to energy and heat production, depending on the time of year and their own individual and communal priorities and preferences. The project’s website states the following:

A human powered student community has enormous potential for a reduction in energy use. If students have to generate their own power, they are much less likely to waste it. How far would students go to reduce their efforts? Would hot showers go out of fashion? Would salads be the next culinary trend? Would typewriters make a comeback?

Energy use is also lowered by encouraging the communal organisation of daily household tasks, just like in the old days. Finally, the human powered student community applies low-tech solutions, such as fireless cookers, thermal underclothing, and heat exchange showers, which all maximize comfort in the context of a limited energy supply.

The Human Powered student community is not only 100% sustainable, it also promotes better health and fitness, as well as more social cohesion.

Impression of the laundry floor of the Human Power Plant

Detail from the communal shower and laundry floor. Image by Golnar Abbasi via Low-Tech Magazine.

The students will be using specially designed exercise machines to generate power, with a jacuzzi as the key element to actual production. This is because the system is designed using pressurised water as the energy carrier, as explained by Kris.

The kinetic energy produced by humans and their pets is pumped into a pressure vessel, which produces water under pressure that is led to water turbines which supply mechanical energy and electricity. The jacuzzi is the receiving reservoir of this closed system.

With the choice for water under pressure, we want to make energy more visible and audible. More importantly, however, it allows us to produce electricity without the use of batteries and electronics — which are not sustainable components. In our human power plant, the hydraulic accumulator takes the place of the battery and the voltage regulator. Small variations in human power production can be smoothed out, keeping the voltage constant. Longer term energy storage is provided by the humans themselves.

Aside from the technical dimension of the project, it is the social element that is perhaps all the more intriguing. A time schedule will keep them informed as to when they should produce electricity or perform other communal services but will the student residents be sufficiently motivated to maintain their 100% fossil fuel-free existence? Great care has been taken at the design stage to ensure that the machines are as fun and efficient to use as possible, ideally with the opportunity, unlike in many modern to gyms, to socialise whilst exercising. Kris states that:

To make power production more social, we decided that power producers should be able to talk to each other. They can even bring their pets to help with power production, creating a cosy and home-like atmosphere. This is not a new idea: dogs were commonly used as a source of mechanical power in pre-industrial times, and also provided their owners with a source of warmth.

For some, it may seem the ideal student accommodation solution, a unique chance to combine community, fitness and environmental responsibility. Time will tell as to whether this is the future for autonomous renewable energy production on campuses across the globe. In the meantime, Kris and Melle will be updating both Low-Tech Magazine and the Human Power Plant website with news about progress towards this exciting venture.

Full details of the project can be found using the above links, with a full list of the project partners available here. With thanks to Low-Tech Magazine for permission to reproduce excerpts for the original Low-Tech Magazine article by Kris de Decker.