Shell’s ‘Footstep-Powered’ Soccer Field Will Never Work

Oil giant Shell claims in its #makethefuture campaign that it is promoting renewable energy and helping a poor community in Brazil by bringing it “the world’s first football pitch powered by footsteps.” It has told 1.6 million YouTube viewers and counting that this an idea “that could change the world.”

Don’t believe it.

Footstep power is 137 times more expensive than natural gas–and even then it doesn’t really work.

The Math

A quick overview of the technology: Shell built Morro de Mineira a new soccer pitch, but instead of grass or standard artificial turf, they build it out of 200 tiles that, when stepped on, create a certain amount of electricity. The question is: how much, at what cost?

If we do the math, we see that the answer is: not even enough to keep the field’s lights on–at a cost of over $100,000.

In the video, Shell makes you think that the lights are only powered by footstep energy. But footstep energy is an unbelievably weak power source.

On the website, Shell admits that the energy generated is not even enough to power the lights while the players are playing; it has to be supplemented with a battery and solar panels–as we’ll see, this only adds to the ridiculous cost. And it’s unlikely that this is the end of it; Shell refuses to specify whether all the power comes from footsteps and sunlight, meaning that the lights are mostly likely connected to a grid that gives it reliable power through fossil fuels.

Now let’s look at cost.

How much does this idea “that could change the world” cost to not really keep the lights on?

Let’s say the lights on the field get used for five hours a night on average.

There are 200 tiles and they are $500 each–that’s $100,000 not counting installation, the solar array, the battery, or the fossil-fuel-powered electric grid.

How long will they last? While rhetoric about footsteps being “renewable” would imply forever, it’s very charitable to guess they will last 10 years at five hours of use a day (most soccer is played during the daytime) before replacement. So that’s $10,000/year.

How much would it cost for a natural gas plant to do the same thing? I estimate that, best-case scenario, the players generate the equivalent of 4 100 watt light bulbs worth of electricity when they are playing.

A recreational soccer player takes 144 steps in a minute. Using the numbers on this site, this is at most enough to keep three tiles going at 6 watts each, so 18 watts total. With 23 soccer players, that means 414 watts total–that’s less than two-thirds of 1 Horsepower (which is 746 watts). So about 4,100 watt light bulbs is, best-case-scenario, what the players are generating.

So it costs over $10,000 to (not really) keep the lights on for 5 hours a day using footsteps. That’s 400 watts * 5 hours = 2000 watt-hours a day or 2 kilowatt hours a day * 365 = 730 kilowatt hours a year. At $10,000 that’s about $13.70 a kilowatt hour!

Let’s put it in perspective.

$10,000 for 730 kilowatt hours is like paying $10,000 a year to charge your Tesla once a month.

Electricity from, say, a natural gas plant, can cost consumers 10 cents a kilowatt hour. That means this footstep energy is 137 times more expensive! If you spent $100,000 to keep the lights on using natural gas it would last not 10 years but 1370 years.

And really, it’s way more than that once you figure in the solar panels, batteries, reliable electricity from the grid, and construction costs. But Shell doesn’t give us any of that information. It should. Energy is useless if it’s not affordable.

But Shell’s focus in this campaign is not educating the world about the technologies that make possible affordable energy. It is diverting away attention from the affordable energy by which it makes its money: oil.

The Motive

You might be surprised that an oil company like Shell is lying about the promise of a form of renewable energy. But don’t be.

Shell and many other oil companies have a long history of disingenuously positioning themselves as non-fossil fuel companies; for example, despite pursuing continuous growth of its oil and gas production, Shell frequently omits the word “oil” from its homepage and claims it is committed to “bringing man-made emissions down to zero.”

Why do this? Plenty of potential reasons. Criticism can win them favoritism from politicians and as well as positive public sentiment. Also, many companies are more than happy to rake in subsidies for inefficient technologies rather than have to develop true innovations that can compete on the free market.

This is a shame because the fossil fuel industry does vital work; it is the only industry that can even come close, for the foreseeable future, to producing cheap, plentiful, reliable energy for billions of people.

Shell can afford to plunk $100,000 for a feel-good contraption, and millions of dollars to lie about its effectiveness. But billions of people can’t afford to live without the energy Shell pretends it doesn’t produce.

Will Shell apologize for its disingenuous campaign? I hope they do, and I hope they recognize that oil technology is an exciting part of our future.