In 2019, Andrew Fleming-Brown realised that the venue he manages in Glasgow, called SWG3, a collection of industrial warehouses “designed for holding tobacco, not people”, was falling behind when it came to sustainability. Then he had an idea: “We realised that our audiences could be our source of energy.”
He recruited inventor David Townsend and his company TownRock Energy to investigate greening the complex and, in just over a year, they developed and built Bodyheat: a system that provides carbon-free climate control by storing heat from SWG3’s visitors.
“Bodyheat is a crazy dream born from being in lots of hot clubs, working in geothermal energy, and bringing the two together,” Townsend says. “This dream is now a functioning, complex energy system that hopefully can inspire lots of other businesses and venues to reach net zero.”
Although precise estimates won’t be available for six to 12 months, Townsend says the system should save 70 tonnes of CO2 a year once it’s fully operational (on average, SWG3 currently emits 138.5 tonnes of CO2 a year), and is capable of delivering net-zero heating and cooling.
Officially launched on 6 October, Bodyheat is installed across two of the largest event spaces within the SWG3 complex – Galvanizers and TV Studio – as well as in its lobby. A sold-out gig in Galvanizers – which has a capacity of 1,250 – could generate 800 kilowatt hours in heat.
To cool things down, ceiling-mounted units move that heat from the air into specialised fluid. Pipes then shuttle the fluid into a plant room, housed in a shipping container behind the venue. Here, electricity from renewables is used to transfer the heat into another set of pipes connected to 12 geothermal boreholes in SWG3’s community garden.
The boreholes funnel heat 200 metres below the garden into a layer of bedrock that acts like a thermal battery, storing the heat until it’s required to warm less populated areas of the venue. If heating is needed immediately, for example in a lobby in the dead of winter, a secondary system can move heat directly from one space to another.
Using spectators to generate eco-friendly energy is growing in popularity. Perhaps the best-known example has come from Coldplay, whose Music of the Spheres world tour features “energy centres” within stadiums. With 44 kinetic tiles and 15 stationary bikes, the centres encourage audiences to participate in powering the show. Dancing fans compress tiles to generate electricity, which contributes to stadium sound and lighting demands. Each tile can produce up to 35 watts of energy, and – according to the manufacturer, Energy Floors – has a lifespan of about 15 years.
Coldplay frontman Chris Martin has said that the band aims to halve carbon emissions from touring compared to their previous outing five years ago. In response to backlash about the band’s use of private jets to travel between locations, Martin has acknowledged that there’s still “a long way to go” to make touring sustainable.
Human-powered energy is also on the rise beyond the A-list. Colin Tonks, co-founder of Electric Pedals, brings cycle-driven cinemas, art installations and discos to people across the world. “Each bike generates electricity via a system that is 100% powered in real time,” he says.
“When people pedal, it charges big capacitors. We convert that power into mains power to drive projectors and sound. It’s a balancing act between consumption and generation.”
But Tonks warns about overpromising on what kinetic systems can actually achieve. “Some events are touted as ‘cycle-powered’. In reality, energy consumption is usually so high that even if everyone in a stadium were cycling, that would be a 10th of what was being consumed.
“About half a kilowatt is generated on one bike. That’s a quarter of the energy required to run a kettle. You’d need four people just to boil a kettle. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minuscule amount of energy.”
Morgan acknowledges that, when it comes to individual events, the energy required to create kinetic tiles can outweigh the energy they produce during the event itself. “Here, the biggest impact is made by creating awareness around renewable energy,” he says.
Other innovators in kinetic energy share the sentiment. “There’s a lot of misinformation around these kinds of systems,” says Paul Price, head of communications at Pavegen: a company whose kinetic floor tiles have been installed more than 200 times across 36 countries. “They aren’t an alternative to solar or wind, and never will be. They power a conversation: we need to change our behaviours.”
Tonks agrees: “Science communication is our driving force. We’ve just installed a school project where we teach kids about how energy from their body can make music. It’s not a new energy source, but it is an opportunity to actually feel energy.”
For Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Sustainable Dance Floor, kinetic technology is equally vital for inspiring a sense of joy within environmental activism. “Energy is part of our freedom and identity,” he says. “We should embed that into our landscapes to physically create our future.” Upcoming projects from his design lab Studio Roosegaarde include biodegradable organic fireworks and energy-harvesting kites that can produce up to 100 kilowatts of renewable energy.
More ambitious experiments are on the horizon at SWG3. “We’re now looking at developing the third floor to provide space for businesses with environmentally positive missions,” Townsend says.
“We’re interested in understanding how Bodyheat can be transferred to other venues, so gathering data at SWG3 over the next six months is critical,” adds Fleming-Brown. “Could it be used in gyms, for example?”