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A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single e-bike

Stepping off the curb to cross a street in Chinese cities, sounds of squeaky brakes are the only signal you hear to warn that you are about to be hit by an electric bicycle. They travel quite quickly in comparison to foot travel, but congest traffic because they don’t move as fast as cars.

What does being hit by an e-bike in China have to do with Peak Oil and declining conventional oil supplies? In order to answer that question we have to take a look at electric infrastructure that is currently used to power transportation on a mass scale in Asia. More importantly, we have to ask whether it can work on a much larger scale.

Also known as e-bikes, electric bicycles are becoming more and more common in Chinese cities. They represent wealth – a status symbol for the middle class. It’s higher status than walking, riding a bicycle or taking the bus, but less than owning a car.

Chinese government statistics put the number of e-bikes at 28 million Expected sales in 2007 will add another 30 million units, almost doubling the entire countrywide ownership in just one year. Add to that half a billion bicycles and 80 million motorcycles and you can see that most of the people here do most of their traveling by two-wheeled vehicle.

Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Are e-bikes a first step in the transformation of the world’s transportation system? Maybe, but the challenges are enormous.

Infrastructure: With the addition of all of these new e-bikes, cities will also need to dramatically increase electricity infrastructure to keep the bikes re-charged and moving. E-bikes can be plugged directly into a wall socket for recharging with no specialized equipment, but the places to re-charge are limited to parking garages in apartment buildings, office complexes and some parks where you have to pay 2RMB (.23 cents) for a recharge. Electric sockets are like parking spaces: you need to go somewhere else when the spaces are full. Chinese cities are still building the somewhere else.

I asked a city transportation official, “What if someone needed to travel a longer distance. Where could you recharge along the roadside?” His response was “Take the bus” – and this puts us back to the peak oil debate. What happens if you can’t afford the bus because fuel is scarce and extremely expensive?

E-bikes are only used in cities with flat terrain or minor uphill grades. Hilly cities in the mountains – Chongqing and Lanzhou come to mind - lack e-bikes, simply because power from the batteries is not enough to climb steep hills. On one occasion I saw an e-bike having trouble getting up the ramp of a parking garage; the rider had to get off and walk beside the bike to the top of the ramp.

So lightweight, two-wheeled vehicles have problems moving a single person up a slight grade. Just imagine the difficulties in shifting the world’s transportation system to electricity! It would be essentially impossible for heavy trucks with over sized loads to move through the mountains by battery power.

In his book Geo-Destinies, Walter Yongquist sums it up:

Larger difficulties are foreseen in producing electric vehicles such as the great variety of trucks which have to travel many miles in remote areas on steep grades with very heavy loads, or semi-tractor trailers with two or three trailers on interstate highways and transcontinental hauls. Using heavy farm equipment or bulldozers in remote areas far from battery charging stations also presents problems.

Travel Bubbles: With the current limited range of electric powered vehicles, could a society exist in a 25-kilometer radius bubble for e-bikes and a 200-kilometer radius bubble for cars? If electricity is the final power source that our societies will transition to after we go through the compressed natural gas phase for our cars, buses and trucks around the planet, how will society accommodate the need to charge batteries and then continue on our journeys?

Consider the problems: you own a Chinese-made e-bike and wish to travel 50 km. After the first 25 km, you have to stop and recharge for 2-3 hours before continuing on your journey. Finally arriving at your destination you have to recharge again for another. At the midpoint of your return, for a third time you have to stop and recharge. Just a simple 100-km round trip journey would involve 6-9 hours of wait time – provided there are recharging stations along the way. And they would have to be spaced exactly at the halfway point. In practice, to accommodate everyone’s electric vehicle maximum radius the charging stations would have to be far more numerous than petrol stations we are familiar with today.

Electricity to power our vehicles sounds great in theory, but take into consideration the environmental problems. We have seen throughout history that lead is poisonous. With the amount of lead around us in our daily lives that would be required to keep our transportation systems functioning, the health effects would be staggering. Lead is lost back into the environment as you use a battery-powered vehicle. Christopher Cherry at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies puts the loss of lead at that contained in an entire e-bike battery for every 10,000 km travelled. Worldwide, how many kilometers do we travel each year? Dividing that huge number by 10,000 gives the amount of lead per year added to the air we breathe and the land and water that sustain us.

Lead emissions: Reduced carbon emissions but greatly increased lead emissions: That will be the impact of battery-powered vehicles on our transportation systems.

Many electric vehicle manufacturers tell of a rosy future dominated by specialized hybrid batteries made with cadmium-lithium, nickel-metal hydride, nickel-iron, sulfur-aluminum, zinc bromine, nickel-cadmium, lithium polymer and sodium sulfur, but in the real world where business takes place the cheapest methods and materials are used to maximize profit. Lead-acid batteries will continue to lead the pack. Currently, 95% of China’s e-bikes use them. Second- and third-generations of mass-produced electric vehicles may use those specialized batteries the car makers boast about, but that won’t happen soon.

Conventional lead-acid batteries have only one per cent of the stored energy of gasoline. As Walter Yongquist explains,

The extra energy required to move one ton of storage batteries in the car, as compared with the minute amount of energy required to move four litres of gasoline in the tank is hard to beat. A litre of gasoline provides at least 100 times the energy of a battery taking up the same space. The convenience of 60 litres of gasoline weighing less than 50kg which will allow a car to travel 700km at 100 kilometers per hour without stopping will be hard to replace.

It is possible that our societies could transition to compressed natural gas (CNG) to run our worldwide transportation network, but natural gas supplies in North America are already in decline. The major hope there is that Asia sits on vast quantities of it. So if by some miracle North America and Europe do change all of their cars to use CNG, they will have to import natural gas to keep everything running -- a continuation of the practice of relying on imported energy. The only other choice is electric battery propelled transport, which presents its own gargantuan set of challenges. Since 97% of the world’s transportation uses fossil fuel in one form or another, do you see a problem?

Biofuels, which include ethanol and bio-diesel, are additives for gasoline and diesel that use nearly as much energy to produce as they give in return. If you are pinning your hopes on them and electric vehicles to keep our world economy running and expanding; I have a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.

David DuByne is from the United States and is presently living and teaching Business English in Chongqing, China. He and webmaster Marc Hastenteufel are translating his website - Dave's ESL biofuel - into Mandarin Chinese. This English teaching website is devoted to bio-fuel and oil depletion. Robert Rapier, an expert on cellulose ethanol, gas-to-liquids (GTL), and butanol production, provides technical assistance in the renewables and conservation section.

Editorial Notes: David DuByne has written three other pieces for Energy Bulletin about China and energy. Riding a real bicycle seems classier to me. Healthier and a lot less hassle. -BA UPDATE: vtpeaknik has thoughtful, detailed criticism of this article at The Oil Drum's Drumbeat today. For example:
The basic assumption is American-style ... in a post-oil world,people will not set out on a 100-km roundtrip based on a "wish". And when such a trip is justified, they will not use an e-bike

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