Brazilian prisoners are generating clean energy pedalling for parole

By Rachel England Friday 15 March 2013

Pedal power

Every cyclist worth their salt is clued up about pedal-powered lights. Attach them to your bike and off you go, generating light with minimal effort and keeping safe in the process. Now, though, the concept is being applied to a pioneering scheme on a much bigger scale.

A prison in Brazil is allowing inmates to make good their misdemeanours to society by letting them pedal for parole – literally. They’ll have one day shaved off their sentence for every 16 hours they spend on an electricity-generating bike, creating power for local street lamps which would otherwise be switched off, thereby creating a safer environment for the community beyond the bars.

The scheme was introduced to the Santa Rita do Sapucaí prison after a local judge heard about gyms in California that generate electricity from stationary exercise bikes, and the programme sure does tick a lot of boxes. The town gets basically-free electricity that it wouldn’t have access to otherwise and prisoners are kept active while repaying their debt to society – a reduced sentence obviously sweetens the deal, of course!

There are currently four bikes in the prison, each taken from the local police station’s lost and found department. Local businesses donated car batteries and a converter to the cause, and neighbourhood engineers helped to transform the bikes into electricity generators, capable of charging batteries with 110 volts.

Every evening, a battery is taken to a downtown promenade and hooked up to a converter, which then powers 10 street lights throughout the night. It’s a bit ramshackle, granted, but the scheme is proving hugely popular with the prisoners – there’s an application process and a waiting list, such is the demand for the chance to cycle to freedom. Happily, there are plans to add a further eight bikes to the program, with a long-term goal of generating enough electricity to power all 34 riverside streetlights in the city.

Speaking to The Associated Press, prison director Gilson Rafael Silva said: “People who normally are on the margins of society are contributing to the community and not only do they get out sooner in return, they also get their self-esteem back.”

Pedal power


Sweat and tears: electricity-generating fitness facts

  • The idea of generating power from human activity isn’t new – one of the first gyms dedicated to the cause opened in Hong Kong in 2007.
  • A regular 30-minute workout on a special ReRev elliptical cross-trainer (the kind increasingly found in ‘green gyms’) will generate around 50 watts of power. This is enough to...
    ...power an energy-saving lightbulb for two and a half hours,
    ...charge a mobile phone six times, a laptop for one hour,
    ...or power a desktop PC for 30 minutes
  • A dedicated, super-keen athlete spending an hour a day on such a machine could generate in a year close to half of what a family uses in an entire month.
  • You needn’t be a fitness junkie or a Brazilian prisoner to take advantage! More and more chainless ‘hybrid’ bikes are coming onto the market, allowing cyclists to pedal part of their journey while ‘storing up’ energy which is then spent on rolling leisurely to their destination.

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