The Environmental Cost of Electric Bikes vs. Cars and Motorcycles

environmental-costs-of-electric-bikes

We live in a consumer based society, which ultimately amounts to both waste and environmental impact. Without getting too far into the political implications of our effect on the planet, this article aims to investigate the environmental costs of electric bikes, and compare these costs to those of the more common transportation methods like cars and motorcycles as well as traditional pedal powered bikes. We’ll start with an overview of the environmental impact of ebikes.

While electric bicycles are considered zero-emission vehicles, the truth is that the process of building and charging them is not emission free… nor is disposal of parts and batteries when they break or reach the end of their lifecycle.

Looking first at the consumption of electricity, for example, in the United States of America, most electricity is generated through the burning of coal or natural gas, which made up about 66% of all energy production in 2014 according to reports by the US Energy Information Administration. Coal and natural gas is followed by nuclear energy at almost 20% of production, and lastly by renewable and other sources at about 14%. Renewable energy sources are making larger contributions each year, but are still by far in the minority at this time, so the burning of fossil fuels for electricity is a reality. It’s fairly tricky to come up with figures that can represent an ebike’s impact on the grid; the ebike model (battery and motor), and the user’s biking habits would all play a part. Generally speaking however, a single ebike has a very low impact on the grid: if one was to use their ebike for about 2,000 kilometers each year, they could expect to use somewhere around 20,000 – 25,000 watt hours, which is the equivalent of running a medium sized window AC unit (900w model) for about 22 – 28 hours. This is a pretty general statement but it gives a rough sense of the scale.

There’s little data about the manufacturing process of ebikes, although it is not very dissimilar to regular bikes: about 80% of ebike components are shared by traditional bicycles. Each manufacturer will have different environmental standards, mostly dependent upon its country of origin. China is a major player in this market as well as in the production of automobiles and other transport devices. The frame, crank arms, pedals and wheels should all last if cleaned and cared for (stored inside or covered) and many manufacturers sell battery replacements. There are even companies out there which will refill old discontinued battery packs with new cells.

This brings us to the ebikes’ battery, which present the greatest concern when it comes to environmental cost and waste. Today, batteries are not designed for long-term use, and can only be expected to last anywhere from 1 to 3+ years depending on type, use and maintenance factors. Consider storing yours in a cool dry location and checking that it doesn’t get too low over the course of weeks or months of disuse. While batteries may be recycled, there are still a number of issues in the manufacturing process, and in disposal. Batteries come in different types: lead acid (heaviest, cheapest and most detrimental to the environment), nickel metal hydride (NiMH), lithium polymer (LiPoly), lithium manganese, and lithium iron phosphate (LiFe-PO4) as well as other combinations. According to Treehugger.com, a report made in China regarding lead acid type batteries found that even with recycling, each battery produced emitted about 420 milligrams of lead which is harmful to people. Other sources make varying claims about the other battery types. In a report called, Contribution of Li-Ion Batteries to the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles, done in 2010 by a Swiss team, the findings concluded that, “the environmental impact of production is almost meaningless when compared to lifetime operating cost… The extra components on an electric bike do add to the environmental impact, but not much…” The major takeaways seem to be to avoid lead acid batteries, know the source of your battery and research proper recycling procedures based on the type. Many ebike companies will help direct you to proper disposal locations or some big box or labelled bins many retailers have out front to collect used electronics.

Another concern, outside of the manufacturing and powering process, includes the possibility that ebikes may do greater ecological harm to trails and natural areas, as opposed to a typical mountain bikes. This would be due to an ebikes’ faster speed and greater weight. While this hasn’t been studied in detail, a 2015 report by the International Mountain Bicycling Association found that damage to soils by ebikes were much closer to mountain bike than to motorcycles. This concern is however not relevant to the city commuter ebike for obvious reasons.

A few additional notes on the impact of ebikes: a study by the European Cyclist Federation showed the overall carbon footprint of ebikes as nearly identical to traditional bikes, stating that a cyclist produces 21g of CO2 per kilometer travelled whereas ebike user produced about 22g of CO2 per kilometer, compared with 101g by bus and 271g by passenger car. One reason why the numbers between ebikes and traditional bikes is so close is that an ebike user expends less energy while riding than a traditional bike rider, and so they will theoretically be consuming less carbs, which reduces their carbon footprint.

Now for a look at traditional motor vehicles: cars and motorcycles.

 

There are so many ways of looking at the environmental concerns when investigating traditional motor vehicles. The sheer number of components, processes, maintenance, etc., could be investigated to an almost infinite degree. We’ll try to keep our scope as simple as possible, starting with some very general facts before considering a few specifics.

 

Looking at the basic environmental cost of manufacturing cars, there is an extremely wide range, so these numbers should be considered a rough outline based on numbers by The Guardian and other sources:

 

  • Carbon footprint from manufacturing a compact car such as a civic, focus or corolla: 5-10 tons of CO2
  • Carbon footprint of a full-sized luxury sedan or compact SUV: 15-20 tons of CO2
  • Carbon footprint of full sized trucks / SUVs: 25+ tons of CO2

Here’s a look at the CO2 emissions for cars based on 10-mile round-trip commute over a year (only 2,600 miles):

 

  • Compact car getting 35 MPG: 68 gallons of gas = .7 tons of CO2 / year
  • Mid-sized car getting 20 MPG: 124 gallons of gas = 1.3 tons of CO2 / year
  • Large SUV / 4X4 truck getting 14 MPG: 170 gallons of gas = 1.9 tons of CO2 / year

A brief look at motorcycles:

 

Motorcycles are definitely more fuel efficient than traditional cars, getting anywhere from 50 – 80 MPG, and even more for motor scooters. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them a green alternative to cars. According findings reported by both CarbonPig.com and Mythbusters, the emissions of motorcycles exceed that of many cars and even SUVs, due to less regulations on motorcycle emissions, producing much higher levels of VOCs, PM10, SOx, and NOx.

 

Production of fuel:

 

When you pay for gasoline, it’s not only the product you’re paying for, but the whole process of exploring for the oil, drilling, recovering, and refining. All gasoline contains a level of additives, and some types still have lead added to them, which is a health concern. Gasoline is not a green product, and consumers should be aware of the environmental risks and negative impacts throughout every step of its lifecycle (including the geo-political consequences like human rights and all out warfare) from discovery and drilling to combustion in an engine.

 

Other concerns revolving around motor vehicles:

 

There are many issues: various fluids which need to be produced, disposed of and may leak causing environmental impact, like brake fluid, coolant and antifreeze, engine oil, etc. There’s the long term impacts of vehicle disposal– they cannot be as readily recycled given the vast number of parts and materials. There’s the impact to roads from their weight, tire and brake particulates, which contaminates the air… and the list could go on.

 

A few additional words for the environmentally-conscious:

 

There are other alternatives the environmentally conscious consumer can consider. We didn’t get into public transportation here, or carpooling, or hybrid/electric cars, for example, which are all viable options… many of which can be used in conjunction with bicycles or electric bikes. If car ownership is a must, used vehicles have less impact on the environment as owning one of them means an additional car does not need to be manufactured. Of course, older vehicles are not always as fuel efficient, may require more upkeep, and are not going to last as long.

 

An ebike might not be able to replace your car for some uses, but when comparing the environmental impacts, there’s really no question. If you use an ebike as a replacement for driving a car, you are absolutely helping to curb your CO2 footprint and may even be more efficient than pedalling a traditional bicycle depending on your diet.

 

Sources and specific articles referenced in this article include the following: The Guardian, United States EPA, Treehugger, BikePortland.org, Slate, SF Bay Area Bike to Work Day Website, Research by Shelby Electro, How Products are Made, Carbon Footprint Calculator, CarbonPig, UK France Bikers, Research by Josia Published at Berkeley.edu and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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