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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans

Electric Bicycles: Green Your Bike Commute

Despite the huge recent push to significantly reduce emissions, if you take a look around, you’ll note that cars still rule the road.  The common mentality is that a bicycle (or walking, for that matter) is for those who live right around the corner from work, or don’t have any extras to tote along during the day.  Enter the electric bicycle.

Electric bikes (also sometimes referred to as e-bikes or ebikes) haven’t yet proven to be a viable alternative for most people because of the cost, weight, and added complexities that can arise from their use.  However, there are some strong cost and environmental justifications for using these virtually silent motorized wonders as part of your daily commute.  The newest technology for electric bikes also effectively answers many past e-bike concerns such as weight and complexity.

Blue Electric BikeLet’s face it:  Who really wants to sit and twiddle their thumbs while idling out exhaust during traffic time?  Public transportation and bicycling infrastructure is thorough, and can provide great alternative options here.  There are generally a wealth of bike lanes in cities, buses have bike racks on them, and you can even roll your bike right onto some subway systems.  The latter carry-around requirement (other than total lack of awareness of their existence) is also why some choose not to go for electric bicycles.

Back at home, you can use your electric bicycle to de-stress with a quick ride outdoors in the fresh air, and there’s always that quick evening trip to the nearby store or local farmer’s market.  Although you might typically relish the opportunity to hop on your bike and pedal over, the electric motor is nice when you’re too tired to supply all of the pedal power—especially with a loadful of heavy groceries in tow!

There are generally a wealth of bike lanes in cities, buses have bike racks on them, and you can even roll your bike right onto some subway systems.

If any of these ideas resonate with you, the eco-friendly world of electric power-assist bikes may just have a role in your future.  With svelte designs, a lightweight aluminum frame, awesome range, rechargeable battery packs, and extensive storage capacity, the new electric bikes represent an excellent middle-ground between green pedal power and automotive gas guzzlers.

Bike Weight and Battery Technologies

If you keep your machine under 750 watts and 20 mph, you’re still technically considered a regular bicycle under federal law.  Not too long ago, an electric bike with 750 watts would have been akin to a V-8 Harley in terms of weight, and thus too heavy to be practical.  However, e-bikes are emerging on the market sporting lighter, sleeker aluminum frames, while incorporating electrical components inside of the frame itself (i.e.  no messy wiring to tangle with).  Lead-acid and Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) have been the battery technology standards, but recently, newer, lighter weight battery packs have replaced those on many models.

The hottest of today’s designs include lithium polymer battery packs, which add only about 10 lbs to the bike’s frame, and are said to give a range of 50-60 miles without requiring a recharge.  In addition, some packs deliver full power until the battery is drained (as opposed to a waning power as the battery dies), and sport a very speedy charge time of 4 hours or less.  Aspiring eco-evangelists can take things to an even higher level of green-ness by charging their batteries with solar or wind power using an inverter or a proper DC charger.

Recently, a U.S. company affiliated with MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) licensed its technology to a company that now produces 36 volt lithium packs to power its tools.  Some inventive folks out there caught wind of this, and are now using these 3 pound packs to power their e-bikes!  A modification such as this will take you as far as a 10 pound lead-acid (about 15 miles), and will last for around 1,000 recharge cycles, as opposed to the more typical 250 cycles of typical batteries.  Across the pond in England, a gentleman named Tony Castles of Ego Personal Transport has created an electric folding bike that weighs 40 pounds using an even smaller battery pack. His DIY (do it yourself) kit, available online at Ego Personal Transport, includes a hub motor which only weighs around 5 pounds—and can’t be heard over the astonished exclamations of people wondering how you are climbing that hill with all of that cargo!  A Canadian company named ItsElectric offers a similar conversion kit, including options for Lithium or NiMH batteries.

Range and Speed

One amazing aspect of electric bicycle (a.k.a. e-bike or power-assist bicycle) technology is how it can regulate the level of assistance you need during various portions of your journey.  Most new models can help you tote cargo uphill at speeds of up to 20 mph or more, and can reach speeds of 30 mph or more on flat terrain.

Keep in mind that 20 mph is the legal maximum assist speed allowable in most U.S. states.Black Electric Bike

20mph also serves as a mechnically practical limit for power-assist bike because its gearing will be lower, allowing for more torque to get you up the hills.  Range of travel fluctuates anywhere from 15–20 miles to upwards of 50–60 miles, depending on external factors like the model, terrain, amount of cargo, a rider’s weight, etc.  Some companies now offer the option of accommodating extended cargo packs, providing you with extensive storage space to portage your groceries or other gear to and fro.  Regulating the amount of assist allows you to kick back or to put in a little more effort during travel, depending on the load and your energy.

E-Bike Prices

What’s not to love about e-bikes?  They’re light, they recharge quickly, travel far without a trace of pollution, and store all of your stuff . . . “But wait,” you naturally ask next, “What’s this gonna cost me?”  A little research reveals a wide range of prices, simply dependent upon maker and added features.  Average prices span from $450 to $1,500, while add-ons like customized front suspension and battery upgrades will tack on a bit more.  However, that’s not too shabby considering what you’ll be saving in fuel costs over the long haul (and long hauls to the market), and the harmful pollutants you’ll be sparing Mother Nature in the process.

As you begin your quest to secure yourself one of these versatile, customizable and earth-friendly transports, keep in mind that this is not a purchase you’ll want to skimp on.  The reason is that doing so will likely net you older batteries and systems which are heavy and complicated, whereas many of the newest and somewhat pricier offerings feature lighter and simpler designs.  With an E-bike investment, you’ll not only get a chance to share the details of your pride and joy with admirers and inquirers (and trust me from personal experience here—you’ll meet many!), you’ll also be making some major personal headway towards reducing your air pollution contributions and total carbon footprint.  Très eco-cool!

Article Contributors: Keith Shockley

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