Harvesting Energy Around the World

From harvesting body heat to solar power, countries around the world are getting creative with their energy harvesting.

| September 2016

In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) by Diane Ackerman the reader is given a clearer picture of the planet that we live on. Ackerman takes an in-depth look at the steps humans are taking to help the Earth as well as to hurt it. This excerpt comes from the chapter "Opportunity Warms" where Ackerman delves into the energy policies of various countries around the world.

How intimate, how romantic, how sustainable of the French. As I waited with a throng of Parisians in Paris’s Rambuteau subway station on a blustery November day, my frozen toes finally began to thaw. Alone we may have shivered, but together we brewed so much body heat that people began unbuttoning their dark coats. We might have been emperor penguins crowding for warmth in Antarctica’s icy torment of winds.

Idly mingling, a human body radiates about 100 watts of excess heat, which can add up fast in confined spaces. Rushing commuters contribute even more, and heat also looms from the friction of trains on the tracks and seeps from the deep maze of tunnels, raising the platform temperature to around 70 degrees F, almost a geothermal spa. As new people clambered on and off trains, and trickled up and down the staircases to Rue Beaubourg, their haste kept the communal den toasty.

Geothermal warmth may abound in volcanic Iceland, but it’s not easy to come by in downtown Paris. So why waste it? Instead mine people as a renewable green energy source. Tap even a fraction of the population, say, the heat cloud of subway commuters, and it’s a deep pocketful of free energy. In that spirit, savvy architects from Paris Habitat decided to borrow the surplus energy from all the hurrying bodies in the metro station and convert it into radiant underfloor heating for apartments in a nearby social housing project, which happens to share an unused stairwell with the station. Otherwise the heat borne through countless rushed breakfasts of croissant and café au lait, mind-theaters, idle reveries, and flights of boredom would be lost by the end of the morning rush hour. Opportunity warms.

Appealing as the design may be, it isn’t feasible throughout Paris without a pricey retrofit of buildings and metro stops. But it’s proving successful elsewhere. In America, there’s Minnesota’s prairielike monument to capitalism, the four-million-square-foot Mall of America. Even on subzero winter days the indoor temperature skirts 70 degrees F from combined body heat, light fixtures, and sunlight cascading in through 1.2 miles of skylights. That’s just as well, since people can get married in the mall’s Chapel of Love on the third floor, next to Bloomingdale’s, and taffeta and chiffon aren’t the best insulators.

Or consider Scandinavia’s busiest travel hub, Stockholm’s Central Station, during morning rush hour on a blustery day in January. Outside, it’s -7 degrees F, the streets are icy as a toboggan run, cold squirrels around your face, the air feels scratchy, and even in wool mittens your hands are tusks of ice. But indoors is another country, a temperate one filled with a living mass of humans heading in all directions. Pocketing the windfall, engineers are harnessing the body heat issuing from 250,000 railway travelers to help warm the thirteen-story Kungsbrohuset office building about a hundred yards away. Under the voluminous roof of the station, travelers donate their 100 watts of surplus natural heat, while visitors bustle around the dozens of shops, buying meals, drinks, books, flowers, cosmetics, and such, bestowing even more energy.

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