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.