Inside Clean Energy: E-bike Sales and Sharing are Booming. But Can They Help Take Cars off the Road?
Note: Dan Gearino will be back next week.
Talk to Kiran Herbert and you might start to think that e-bikes cure cancer. She’s not just a writer and content manager at the bicycle advocacy group PeopleForBikes. She is a self-proclaimed e-bike evangelist on a mission to see electric bicycles spread across her home state of Colorado, then across the country and around the world.
“I just love it,” Herbert said during a phone interview. “I rode 10 miles today which on a normal bike is a lot and it’s not something I could just fit into my daily routine. But when I’m on an e-bike and have to go five miles I don’t even hesitate because it’s just as easy as driving. It’s almost better, because I arrive happier.”
She has reason to be so giddy. Next week, the state of Colorado is set to release $12 million for e-bike ownership and rideshare programs. The funding comes as part of Colorado State Senate Bill 22-193, which was signed into law on June 2 and is among a host of state and local measures across the country that identify e-bikes as an essential tool for getting people to drive less, which will reduce emissions from transportation.
“I will say the Colorado bill…has a lot of people excited because it’s showcasing what’s possible,” said Herbert. “Because they have done all these pilot [programs], there’s just a lot of proof that this works and they’re pretty much going all-in on e-bikes, which is really exciting. And I think, honestly, that’s the strategy this country needs.”
Colorado is joining California, Connecticut and Vermont among states with statewide e-bike incentive programs, in addition to many local governments with programs, according to a database maintained by Portland State University in partnership with PeopleForBikes. Massachusetts may soon join them, with a bill making its way through the legislature that would provide rebates to consumers buying e-bikes.
Electric bicycles have been around for over a hundred years. But recent technological advances, including the development of lighter batteries, have helped make them easier to ride. And then, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns pushed more people to ride, share and buy bikes.
E-bike sales grew 47 percent in the 12 months ending in October 2021, compared with the same period ending in October 2020, making this a $741 million product category, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.
It’s not just sales that are up. Bicycle sharing programs across the country have added electric bicycles to their fleets. Electric bikes can be found in cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago and New York City. Riders seem to be happy. And The New York Times reports that in New York’s CitiBike rideshare program, e-bikes make up only 20 percent of the fleet but provide 35 percent of the rides.
So e-bikes are popular. But are they good for the environment? Evangelists like Kiran Herbert say that they can replace a large number of car rides in cities. An e-bike uses less energy than a gas-powered or electric-powered car, so as people start to use e-bikes instead of their cars, they will save money as well as reduce emissions, and may even get rid of their automobiles completely.
There is some evidence to suggest this is true. For example, a 2020 study in Norway found that car owners who purchase an e-bike will drive less.
E-bikes still require the use of lithium-ion batteries to power their motors, with the accompanying concerns about the environmental damage of lithium mining and the risk of battery fires. Also, e-bikes don’t protect riders from rain, wind and snow like a car. And they can’t completely replace cars in certain circumstances, a fact highlighted by the fact that Herbert did our interview from her car, as she drove an hour to the airport from her home in Boulder.
“If it’s raining, I’m going to still bike. It doesn’t rain a lot here,” admitted Herbert. “If it’s snowing, I live in a pretty blessed climate where the snow melts during the day ‘cause it’s so sunny. I also just walk or take the bus in town, or sometimes I’ll drive, but I think it really just depends on where you are. There are places in the Northeast where biking in the winter is just not an option.”
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There’s also the challenge of infrastructure. American cities are built around cars, Herbert said. They will need to be physically rebuilt to accommodate people who want to walk or bike instead.
“The way we build our cities, everything we’ve done is so car-centric,” said Herbert. “If we actually want to become more sustainable, then we need to redesign our cities around people and bikes in a way where everybody can access things regardless of whether or not they have a car.”
Herbert pointed to the business sector as another place to watch for e-bike usage to increase. Just last Tuesday, International shipping company UPS started a trial run of electric delivery cycles in New York City. UPS’s e-bikes (called eQuads) have four wheels instead of two, and look more like mini mail trucks than typical e-bikes. Herbert hopes that the power of big business can make e-bikes a national political priority.
“I think, once companies and corporations get involved, we might see some shift at the federal level.”
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
Solar Developers Pledge $6 Billion for Made-in-America Panels: Some of the largest solar developers in the United States have announced that they are forming a new group to buy panels made in America, a plan that could substantially increase the domestic solar manufacturing industry. The group—including AES Corp., Clearway Energy Group, Cypress Creek Renewables and D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments—said it wants to help diversify the supply of panels in a market that is now dominated by plants based in Asia, as David Iaconangelo reports for E&E News. The group said it wants to buy up to 7 gigawatts of solar panels per year from U.S.-based plants by 2024, which is substantially more than 4.8 gigawatts produced in the country last year. The developers may be trying to protect themselves against potential import restrictions and supply-chain uncertainties that may exist in the coming years, Pol Lezcano, a solar analyst at BloombergNEF, told E&E News.
Democrats May Drop Another Clean Energy Proposal to Appease Manchin: Negotiations continue as U.S. Senate Democrats are trying to get Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), on board to support a long-stalled package of climate and clean energy policies. The party is considering dropping a provision that would have directly paid incentives to renewable energy developers, as opposed to having the developers claim the incentives as a credit on their taxes, as Maxine Joselow of The Washington Post reports. Developers and clean energy business groups have pushed for the “direct pay” provision because it would help smaller developers that have less tax liability and would allow for a faster use of incentives. But Manchin has opposed direct pay, which he views as a handout to companies.
A Clean Energy Boom Hits Colorado’s Eastern Plains: Farmland in Eastern Colorado is being transformed by a boom in wind and solar power development. The wave of renewable energy projects is following the approval of a new interstate power line that will increase the capacity for transporting electricity from rural Colorado to population centers, as Mark Jaffe reports for The Colorado Sun. Also, developers are trying to get projects started in time to qualify for federal tax credits that are set to expire in 2025. “It’s our new cash crop. We don’t have to worry about the rain or hail, as long as the wind blows,” said Jan Kochis, 73, whose family runs a farm and already has wind turbines.
Utility Giant’s ‘Real Zero’ Plan Is a Big Bet on Hydrogen: NextEra Energy, the country’s largest utility holding company based on market capitalization, announced a “Blueprint for Real Zero” last week. The plan would completely replace fossil fuels by 2045 by converting natural gas plants to run on hydrogen created with clean electricity. The Florida-based company’s plan is a notable contrast to the “net-zero” plans of other major utilities, which would continue to burn some fossil fuels but take steps to offset the emissions. But it’s far from clear that hydrogen will work as a fuel for power plants in the way NextEra is describing, as Rachel Parkes writes for Recharge. NextEra would produce hydrogen from water, using renewable energy to power the process, and then use hydrogen in power plants. Many energy companies are talking about making hydrogen a part of their transitions to clean energy, but NextEra is notable for making “one of the biggest bets yet to make hydrogen a central piece of the energy landscape,” as Mark Chediak reports for Bloomberg Green.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.