Solar-Powered Electric Bike


5/30/2011                    by Cam Mather

I’ve blogged about my electric bike before but now that the weather has improved and I’m back riding it, I’ve been reminded of how much I love it. When you live in the country, transportation is always going to be one of the largest contributors to your carbon footprint, especially if you have to commute to a job in town. While Michelle and I work out of the house, we do have to go to town to ship books and for various other things.

This week I needed to get the brakes done on our Honda Civic. So I needed to get the car to Marshall Automotive for the day. Marshall’s is an out-of-the-way place, so even if I could hitch a ride back from Tamworth with a neighbor (which I have few of) I’d still need to get to the repair shop. I could have asked Michelle to follow me in with the truck, but that would mean driving the truck 20 km to Marshall’s to drop the car off, and 20 km home again, twice, if you count picking it up later. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like taking my road bike, which would have meant cycling the entire distance. Sometimes I just get lazy. So I put the electric bike on the back of the car and then I “drove” the electric bike home from the shop. It threatened to rain the whole time that I was riding, which has pretty much been our weather this spring, so I said dam the torpedoes and I figured that only the Wicked Witch of the West melts when she gets wet.

I had a blast! The wind was at my back and even though the bike’s top speed on a straightaway is usually about 30 Km/h, I was often doing more than that. The challenge was going to be riding back later in the day to pick my car up again. The wind is always stronger in the afternoon and I’d be riding into it on the way back. You might not think about the wind when you are in a car but it is a huge factor when you’re on a bike. A big wind can be a big factor, like riding uphill the whole way. Whether it’s battery energy or the energy I got from eating granola for breakfast, riding into the wind requires more of it.

I charged the battery as soon as I got back from my first trip. It took about three hours and the minute the charge light went “Green”off I went. And the bike got me all the way back! I did pedal a lot of the ride, but I was still able to maintain a much higher speed with the help of the electric drive than just peddling on my own. And since I live off the electricity grid, and the battery got charged with my solar panels, IT’S A SOLAR-POWERED BIKE! Coolest thing ever!

I am totally impressed with the Lithium-ion battery that the bike came with. I bought this “Schwinn” bike from Canadian Tire three years ago for $1,000. At the time they were also selling electric bikes with lead-acid batteries for about $500 but everything I read warned me to be careful with those. I have a feeling that those lead acid batteries must have been quite problematic because I notice that Canadian Tire has stopped promoting or selling electric bikes. My lithium-ion battery seems to be working as good as new. I did some research online about how to store a lithium battery over the winter. I’m used to keeping batteries warm. My research told me to store the battery at a 40% charge level in a cold environment. So I leave the bike and the battery out in the horse barn all winter. This goes completely against my instincts, but it seems to be working.

I’ll be the first to admit this is not a macho looking bike. In fact, I’m thinking that without the cross bar, it’s probably a girl’s bike. There I said it … I ride a girl’s bike. But you know, I’m pretty comfortable with that. I also own a 4-wheel drive pickup truck and lots of other manly tools. So I guess I’m comfortable being on a girl’s bike. The funny thing is that the road to town is very quiet, but when someone does drive by it’s generally a male in a big pickup truck, since they don’t make small pickups anymore. So these big honkin’ 8 cylinder, 10 litre monster trucks roar by, and just as I do, when I’m in the car or truck, I always wave. It doesn’t help that I wear a helmet. That’s not cool. And of course all the things that make this electric so incredibly comfortable like it’s nice high padded seat, and the high handlebars that allow you to sit in a comfortable position, just make the bike look all the nerdier. My fluorescent construction vest also adds to the effect. I know how easy it to zone out while you’re driving, especially if you’re tired, or under the influence. When I see how many empty beer bottles there are at the side of my road, there seems to be a lot of celebrating going on behind the wheel. So I wear my fluorescent vest because I want to make sure that when someone comes around a corner, I’m easy to spot.

The bike also has a mirror and I think it’s the most important piece of safety equipment on it, even if it’s off the “nerd factor chart.” When I rode my bike in the city I always used a mirror. One of the biggest dangers to a cyclist is being plowed from behind by a vehicle, and it happens all the time. Last summer there was a rash of such incidences. If someone’s been drinking and driving and is swerving as they come up on me, I’ll get off the road well before they get to me. Even if I don’t notice danger until the last minute I’m still happier to take a header over the front handlebars into the ditch on my own terms, at my own speed, rather than at 80 or 100 km/h thanks to a push from some 4,000-pound crossover SUV.

Often as I’m riding along I hum that tune from the movie“The Wizard Oz” that is played when the nasty neighbour who has come to complain about Toto (the dog) is shown riding her bike. Come on, you know what I’m talking about … “Da da da da da da duh, Da da da da da da duh…” Yea that one.

So I’m not expecting to impress anyone while riding my electric bike to town. Since I rarely see another human being during my ride, I guess it’s not really an issue anyway. I may look like a nerd but I still think that my electric bike is one of the coolest things ever. It just blows me away that I can take power from the sun, store it in this little 10 pound box, and this little box can then propel me 13 km in to town and 13 km back, all without any work from me. And it goes 30 km/h the whole way. Now I’m not the biggest guy, I weight about 150 pounds and the bike is probably 75 pounds, so it’s only pushing 225 pounds. I think my Honda Civic weighs about 2500 pounds, so to do the same with a “safe” 4 wheeled vehicle you’re going to need more than 10 times the battery capacity.

But it gives me great confidence for the future of electric transportation. The grid can’t support everyone switching to electric cars, and since 50% of U.S. electricity is generated by coal, I think you’re better to drive a traditional internal combustion engine if that’s how you’re going to charge your battery. But if you put up some solar panels and charge your bike with solar power, then you’d be on to something. If the power and range of my electric bike are an indication of what’s to come, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”

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