Springing into action

A Blog to Watch published this just over a month ago and I loved it. I’m quoting just enough of it to make sense of my own follow-up, below, but I encourage my readers to visit the original which is three times as long and with more pictures.

It couldn’t be more timely. As the world debates the future of energy sustainability and supply, a new concept has just been completed in Switzerland. Known as the SpringStation, this novel power plant concept is yet another approach to energy diversity for a future in which power generation must be local, sustainable, and renewable. …

The SpringStation concept is relatively straightforward, but getting it right was something that few outside of Switzerland could manage. The station uses a series of mega-sized versions of the mainsprings that power traditional mechanical watches. As tightly wound springs unwind, they are able to move a complex series of gears that in a wristwatch power the mechanism that tells the time. These systems have become super-sized in the SpringStation. Such springs also have the power to generate electricity. …

To release energy as they unwind, SuperSprings must first be wound, and on a regular basis. … This is where the human effort comes in, and it’s in the form of a gym.

Attached to each SpringStation is a human-focused facility known as the WorkStation, with a variety of machines that, when operated, transfer power to a system that gradually winds the SuperSprings. Those machines are in the form of exercise equipment, ranging from stationary bikes to pulley-based strength-training machines …


Now that we’ve all had a chance to enjoy it as an April Fool’s joke (and a very good example of the genre) I’m going to turn around and say something original like, “Many a true word was spoken in jest,” and take it semi-seriously.

In the real world…

The first thing is that I reckon it’s really dumb for gyms to turn all that puffing and panting on treadmills, rowing machines and exercise bikes into heat energy and vent it to the great outdoors. (Especially in a climate like ours, where aircon is such a hugely expensive power-gobbler.) Why not harvest all that energy and turn it into nice clean electricity?

The second is that springs are a perfectly plausible form of energy storage. We know that we can store energy by raising weights and get it back by letting them come down again – whether the weights are water in pumped hydro, or trains driven up hills when the sun is shining and allowed to roll back when it isn’t, or a crane-and-block system which stacks concrete blocks and then lowers them.

I’m not sure whether the spring energy storage achievable in the real world is worthwhile but, thirdly, it is used in the fictional world of The Windup Girl which is such a good SF novel that I’m going to recommend it again.

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