Charging your phone by the sweat of your brow

And now for the most socially awkward thing I had to do this year so far:

I had twenty minutes to wait at the train station in Strasbourg, and a half empty smartphone battery that was supposed to be my guidance device for the upcoming 600km hitchhiking. So I started looking around for an electric outlet. I found it in the shape of a "charging station with a twist" in the middle of the station's hall. The twist: you had to pedal for power.

You sit on the bar-stool type thing, put your feet on the protruding pedals, plug in your machine and pedal away. The energy produced by your legs goes into your device.

When I first saw the thing, I thought: "This is the dumbest idea this year". We're in a train station. Its power input must be measured in hundreds of megawatts. Even if they had dozens of outlets available for people to charge their mobiles, they wouldn't even register the increase in energy-use. Hell, the customer-powered charging station probably cost them more than providing free charging outlets. It costs them no electricity, that's given. But if you factor in the cost of the machine, plus maintenance and stretch it over the lifetime of the thing; it most probably amounts to a daily cost higher than whatever little juice the station-users would leech off their power bill.

Maybe it would make sense in the middle of Burning Man, or whatever event draws crowds without being connected to the grid. Not in a place that has power cables running through every crack to feed all the backlit advertising billboards. Yet, someone had managed to sell it to the Strasbourg train station. I had to try it.

So I did. Within a few seconds of use, it became clear I had greatly underestimated the stupidity of the concept. It was the dumbest idea in the history of dumb ideas. "What's that man doing, Mommy?" A group of french lads stop in front of me, dumbfounded, and all explode in roaring laugh. A group of asian tourists pointing fingers at me laughing politely and taking gigabytes worth of pictures of me... It was quite an experience. I left to catch my train with a litte more charge and thinking very hard about the sense of doing what I just did.

See, I regularly do socially awkward things just for the sadistic satisfaction of startling normal people in their routine. But I was sitting at that table with my feet going round and round under me, stationary, looking at the charge gauge of my phone, feeling so completely out of place... I'm confident that even if the contraption stays in the very middle of what is one of the busiest train stations in Europe, I'm its first user, and will forever be the last. Nobody with the tiniest shred of decency would ever consider doing something so awkward.

A quick search on the web and it becomes very clear what drove the train station managers to buy the thing in spite of its glaring uselessness, and what drove the Belgian startup that makes those things to even build them in the first place. Quoting the article in French: "It's shows we care about the environment", "Exercise is good for people" then contradicted by: "It takes no effort at all". The later is true. To produce the ten watts needed by my charger I hardly felt any resistance in the pedals. Underscoring even further the pointlessness of the enterprise.

Ecology and health, then. But since it doesn't reduce the carbon tab of the train station AND doesn't really increase the heart rate (and, really, no one is ever going to be using it, ever), it's actually Greenwashing and Fat-Shaming. Nice job, 21st century.

With the accumulation of fake good ideas like this, ecology is getting such a bad name that I know some decently clever people that systematically dismiss any attempt at reducing impact as greenwashing. Just great.

A little tip to train station managers looking to simultaneously do good for the environment and their users on a low budget: pull the plug on the backlit advertising billboards.


One year later edit

I've been proven wrong again about human nature. It turns out people are more than happy to crank the pedals to charge their phone in a megawatt environment. I've seen it several times now. Maybe some of you were wondering why this website is called "Homo Stupidens". Now you know.

Comments

What about education? People have no idea of how much energy they are hungry for until they pedal for it. Did you think of the fact that the intent of the machine wasn't to save energy in a dumb way (because obviously it isn't, the global carbon balance is superior with the machine than without, as you rightly said) but to raise the awareness of people on power consumption issues? To launch the debate on the largely ignored subject of the effectiveness of our power solutions? People want to clear their conscience and jump on the machine. Ok, it's not really effective but step after step, we will reach something because they will talk about it etc.... What you just did by the way. However when people dismiss any intent to implement sustainable solutions because at the global it doesn't work or better they don't want to believe in it (or they really like being controversive, like you .. :) ); it is too easy to refuse to commit to something and find excuses to get a global change to operate. No one would ever question anything or want to change anything if they just continue to push buttons to have power. Or turn the tap to have water.

IF the entreprise wasn't so socially awkward, maybe people would use the machine. But, trust me, they won't so any potential educational value is lost. A very low potential since the maximum power output is 30 watts, so you hardly feel any resistance. That doesn't really convey the message that power is hard, thanks to pocket computers being very energy efficient. There would be more educational value in making people pedal for 200 watts for a power-hog device.

How about a pedal powered videogame console + big screen. That's be roughly 200W. So you can play FIFA and actually do sports.

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