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Our electric bike
General · 10th January 2009
Carrie Saxifrage
We’ve ridden our electric bike on Cortes regularly for the last year, covering about 2,555 km at a cost of less than $6 in electricity. We’ve saved hundreds of dollars on gasoline and reduced our global warming emission by more than half a ton. To top it off, riding an electric bike is fun.

Electric bikes solve two problems: the weight of the car and the use of fossil fuels. On an electric bike, the rider is no longer carrying a shell of heavy steel just to move their body and a few groceries. In a car, most of the fuel goes toward moving the machine, not the person.

Once the problem of weight is solved, the fossil fuel problem diminishes in comparison. Nonetheless an electric bike powered primarily by hydroelectricity uses one of the cleanest sources of power available when it comes to carbon emissions.

All those little car trips have an impact. About 20% of the average person’s carbon budget goes toward road travel. Over forty percent of that comes from trips of 8 km or less, the distance of a typical south end errand and well within the range of an electric bike. Sixty percent of pollution from auto emissions occurs in the first few minutes of travel before the vehicle warms up.

In January 06, Richard Andrews at Monkeywrench Bikes on Cortes set us up with a Crystalyte 408 hub wheel with a 36v nickel metal hydride battery. After test driving a model he had at the store, we realized that the hub and battery were so heavy that we needed a dedicated bike if we still wanted to enjoy our mountain bikes. So we bought a beat up old bike to convert to an e-bike.

The whole outfit cost about $1000. For a toy, that’s a lot. But we cover more island miles on island on the bike than in our car, which we mostly use for trips with passengers or cargo. Once you have the bike, the cost of the electricity, unlike gasoline, is negligible. There are additional savings in vehicle maintenance. Our savings will pay for the bike in 3 years. And we will reach our goal of emitting less carbon.

From our house, it is 6 km round trip to Mansons and 8 km to Potlatch. We average a 7 km trip a day on the e-bike, between the two of us. Carbon-wise, we emit about 10 pounds of carbon per year using an electric bike charged primarily by hydroelectricity. Equivalent trips in our Subaru Legacy (about 10.6 km/l) would emit about 1,325 pounds (.6 of a tonne). Equivalent trips in our F-150 (about 6.4 km/l) would emit about 2,200 pounds (1 tonne).

Financially, we save about $280/year in gas using the e-bike instead of a car, about $465/year using it instead of the truck. Finally, a rough estimate for vehicle maintenance savings for this distance is $138/year.

Here are some estimated savings, per year, based on riding 7km per day:

A) If your car get 4.3km/L (10 mpg) you will save $835 and 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per year

B) If your car get 6.4km/L (15 mpg) you will save $603 and 1.0 tonnes of CO2 per year

C) If your car get 8.5km/L (20 mpg) you will save $487 and 0.8 tonnes of CO2 per year

D) If your car get 10.6km/L (25 mpg) you will save $417 and 0.6 tonnes of CO2 per year

Based on $1.16/litre for gas, 2.5 kg CO2 per liter or 20 lb per gallon of gas, mpg in US gallons and reduced maintenance of $138

In addition to carbon and gas savings, the electric bike is fun to ride. The bike is zippy, the air is fresh, the accelerator on the handle is easy to use after about 5 minutes of practice. Our model requires a certain speed before the juice kicks in - we pedal to start, and on the hills it does most, but not all, of the work – so we still get a bit of exercise. I keep the bike in high gear because I enjoy pedaling against resistance on the flat, but it goes plenty fast without my help. It feels somewhere between a motorcycle and a bicycle.

In switching to an e-bike, we had to make minor accommodations for time, weather and safety. For short trips, the time is very close to driving to get to and from Mansons. I can keep the tail lights of a truck in sight pretty much the whole way home. Regarding weather, we used the electric bike all winter, except when it snowed heavily, wearing rubber rain suits and warm gloves. Even that was fun. For safety, a helmet, careful driving and good night gear are essential, because you are going significantly faster than on a regular bike.

Our e-bike model has limited battery capacity. We can go to Mansons twice easily without a recharge, but beyond that gets dicey. It’s no fun to pedal that heavy bike when there is no juice – better to toss it in the bushes and come back for it with a car. If I were going to Whaletown or Squirrel Cove regularly, I’d buy one of the trailers at Monkeywrench, which carries a heavier, longer lasting battery and has room for cargo as well.

In Heat, George Monbiot suggests that people in countries like Canada have until 2030 to reduce our carbon emissions by 90% to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. That’s a lot of shifting: a multitude of small shifts and some big ones too. Monbiot looks for the least painful ways to do this. The electricity to power our e-bike for 5,000 km releases the same amount of CO2 as a single gallon of gas. For us, on Cortes, shifting to an e-bike is not only painless. It’s fun.

Websites I relied on:
Monbiot, George, Heat, Doubleday Canada, 2006.
Close up view of our electric bike showing accelerator on handle and electric motor in front wheel hub
Close up view of our electric bike showing accelerator on handle and electric motor in front wheel hub
spiffier e-bikes
Comment by Phil on 12th June 2012
Great work on your various projects in general.

Most e-bikes I see are kind of on the clunky/garage-built side of things. Not that there is anything wrong with that! However, sleeker and higher performance products (battery life and speed) may increase their popularity. Check out: