electric bikePhoto: Sightline DailyIn part 1, I described the appeal of and demand for electric bikes, and mentioned that three trends bode well for them in the Pacific Northwest and the rest of North America. Battery-juiced two-wheelers could finally break out of their current status as transportation novelties, helping us rise to challenges as great as climate change, oil addiction, and recession. In this post, I detail these trends.

Technology, overseas markets, and political trends all bring good portents for e-bikes.

Giant electric bikeTrend 1. Technical innovation keeps improving electric bikes. The latest Giant, with lithium ion batteries, reportedly has a real-life battery range of 50 miles, doubling what previous models achieved. Sanyo has introduced a European style city bike (pictured on the left) with impressive power-system integration.

Trek electric bikeTrek, a leading American bike maker has entered the e-bike market with designs that may prove appealing to muscle-powered cyclists because of their high-performance feel (pictured on the right).

Meanwhile, garage inventors keep coming up with intriguing innovations like the StokeMonkey (which I described previously); Electric Mountain Drive from Oregon’s Ecospeed (pictured atop this post); and this VoltWagon electrified trailer (pictured below) that hitches to a regular bike and hauls cargo effortlessly.

VoltWagon electrified trailer Luckily for e-bike makers, advanced battery research is in its heyday, thanks to billions of dollars of investment from public and private institutions around the world. The hunt is on for better batteries not only because they’re essential to electrifying transportation and getting the world off of oil but also because they’re needed to harness intermittent, renewable power sources such as the sun and the wind. As battery improvements emerge, electric bikes stand to gain quickly.

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Trend 2. Electric bikes are spreading like wildfire in China and are catching on in parts of Europe as well. As David Goodman recently wrote in the New York Times:

In China, an estimated 120 million electric bicycles now hum along the roads, up from a few thousand in the 1990s. They are replacing traditional bikes and motorcycles at a rapid clip and, in many cases, allowing people to put off the switch to cars … From virtually nothing a decade ago, electric bikes have become an $11 billion global industry.

In the Netherlands, a third of the money spent on bicycles last year went to electric-powered models. Industry experts predict similar growth elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, France and Italy, as rising interest in cycling coincides with an aging population. India had virtually no sales until two years ago, but its nascent market is fast expanding and could eclipse Europe’s in the next year.

China reportedly had 56,000 electric bikes in 1998. Getting to 120 million in 12 years’ time is a phenomenal change, even in a country as populous as China, and e-bikes don’t appear to be slowing: USA Today reports that sales in China are expected to reach a staggering 22 million in 2010 alone, bringing the number of e-bike owners in the country to one tenth of the population. It’s an impressive example of electrifying the transportation sector. It’s also good news for e-bike prices: mass production on that scale has brought production costs down, and just as Chinese-made motor cycles have spread quickly in Asia and Africa, e-bikes are now radiating from China as well.

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Trend 3. Political trends are encouraging for electric bikes as well. Despite disappointment at Copenhagen and slow progress on a climate bill in Washington, D.C., climate change, oil addiction, and the chance to transition to a job-generating clean-energy economy remain potent political issues across much of the industrial world, prominently including the Pacific Northwest.

To seize the opportunity for a clean-energy revolution and move beyond carbon, we need to get completely off coal and oil quickly. Efficiency, compact communities, and transportation alternatives are our best friends in these tasks. But even with great success on all these strategies, we will still need some way to propel our trains, buses, trucks, and cars. The main no-carbon candidates are biofuels and electricity. We’ll need some of each, but electricity has tremendous advantages. It can come from many different carbon-free sources, can travel easily by wire, and can integrate the transportation sector with the rest of the electric grid in ways that make each stronger and more economical.

An impressive array of political and industry leaders have recognized and embraced the pivotal role the electrification of transportation can play in advancing a clean-energy economy. That’s why, for example, the 2009 U.S. federal stimulus included a bevy of investments in research on advanced batteries and electric vehicles.

Electrifying bikes is a perfect first step in pursuit of vehicle electrification, because battery-assisted two wheelers are an easier engineering challenge than are electric cars. Frank Jamerson of Electric Bike World Report told USA Today, “The electric bike is the first wave of the electrification of the personal transportation industry.”

Vehicle electrification is an energy storage problem, not a propulsion problem. Electric motors are much more efficient than fossil-fueled engines, but storing electricity is dramatically harder than is storing liquid fuels. For example, you can fill the tank of a gasoline-powered car in five minutes then drive on that fuel for several hours at highway speeds. Conversely, you need to recharge the Tesla Roadster, a $100,000 all-electric sports car, for roughly an hour for each hour of highway driving. (It takes 3.5 hours to charge fully. Its range is 244 miles, which it could cover in 3.5 hours at 70 mph. A Chevy Volt, which takes longer to recharge, has an electric-only range of 40 miles, after which it runs on a separate gasoline engine.)

Simple physics favor e-bikes over e-cars. Bicycles, even ones loaded with batteries, weigh less than their riders. Electric cars, in contrast, weigh many multiples as much as their drivers. Consequently, most of e-bikes’ battery charge can be spent moving the mass of the rider, but most of electric cars’ charge must be spent moving the bulk of the car itself. What’s more, part of e-bikes’ energy comes from leg muscles, again reducing the required battery power. In auto parlance, e-bikes have human-electric hybrid drives.

For these reasons, electric bikes are in the cat bird seat of electrified transportation at a time when many forces are aligned to speed electrification.

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This alignment of interests (trend 3) coincides with rapid technical progress (trend 1) and huge economies of scale coming from China (trend 2). Together, surely these trends will push electric bikes into the mainstream of personal transportation, at least in good weather, at least in urban parts of the bike- and tech-loving Northwest.

Many observers think so. Many marketers think so. Big-box retailer Best Buy is confident enough that it has introduced e-bikes and other small electric vehicles to a Portland outlet in 2009 and is rolling them into more Northwest stores in 2010.

Maybe electric bikes are on the verge of breaking through in the Pacific Northwest, spreading contagiously as they have in China. But maybe they are not. Maybe the barriers to electric bikes are different in North America than in China or Europe. Whether or not you should buy one doesn’t depend on this question. But our public policies with regard to electric bikes, and perhaps with regard to other electric vehicles, depend on what’s blocking e-bikes in North America. If it’s just a matter of pushing them to a market tipping point, public subsidies can help — the subject of my next post.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this five-part series tomorrow.

This post originally appeared at Sightline’s Daily Score blog.