Hu Wen va a trabajar en bicicleta pero con una diferencia. Esta se mueve gracias a una batería eléctrica. Hu tarda sólo 30 minutos en atravesar el abarrotado centro de Beijing con su bicicleta eléctrica.
Hu y millones de habitantes de la capital China creen que la bicicleta eléctrica es el mejor medio de transporte para evitar los atascos de las horas punta.
Muchos ciudadanos que viven a las afueras han decidido pasarse a las bicicletas y motos eléctricas. Así evitan la congestión de las calles y del transporte público.
La industria calcula que hay en las calles del país más de 100 millones de bicicletas eléctricas. Esta cifra supera con creces a la producción de vehículos de motor: 9,34 millones unidades, de las que 5 millones son automóviles.
En 1998, Hanma Electro Mobile, en Tianjin, fue una de las primeras compañías que empezaron a producir bicicletas eléctricas.
El presidente ejecutivo de la empresa recuerda que el primer año fabricaron 2.000 bicicletas eléctricas. Pero las ventas en China se han multiplicado por 400 en 10 años.
Estos vehículos, baratos y ecológicos, no usan gasolina, no emiten gases y son silenciosos.
Y el precio es otro elemento importante. Los automóviles más baratos cuestan entre 6.000 y 7.000 dólares, mientras que una bicicleta eléctrica puede costar entre 150 y 300 dólares. Un precio mucho más asequible.
Además, en China, las bicicletas eléctricas suponen pocos gastos extras. No requieren licencia de conducción, no hay que matricularlas y el casco no es obligatorio.
Pero estas bicicletas tienen un inconveniente. La batería. Las de plomo no respetan el medio ambiente y su tecnología es de hace 150 años.
Pero los fabricantes están empezando a equipar más bicicletas con baterías de níquel y de litio. Y los consumidores están demandando a su vez bicicletas con baterías de mejor calidad.
China, the world’s bicycle kingdom, one for every three people, is going electric
Last year (2008) Chinese bought about 90% of the 23 million e-bikes sold worldwide. Experts say that next regions to likely embrace e-bikes are Southeast Asia, where gas-powered scooters are popular, and India, where rising incomes mean personal transportation is starting to be in reach of hundreds of millions.
Workers weary of crammed public transport or pedalling long distances to jobs are upgrading to battery-powered bikes and scooters. Even some who can afford cars are ditching them for electric two-wheelers to avoid traffic jams and expensive petrol.
The bicycle was a vivid symbol of China in communist times, when virtually no one owned a car. Even now it still has 430 million bicycles by government count, outnumbering electric bikes and scooters seven to one.
But production of electric two-wheelers has soared from fewer than 200,000 eight years ago to 22 million last year, mostly for the domestic market. The industry estimates about 100 million are on Chinese roads.
Car sales are also booming but there are still only 24 million for civilian use, because few of the 1.3 billion population can afford them. And unlike in many other developing countries, Chinese cities still have plenty of bicycle lanes, even if some have made way for cars and buses.
"E-bike" riders are on the move in the morning or late at night, in good weather or bad. When it’s wet, they are a rainbow army in plastic capes. On fine days, women don gloves, long-sleeved white aprons and face-covering sun guards.
One of them is Xu, on her Yamaha e-bike, making the half-hour commute from her apartment to her job as a marketing manager. She had thought of buying a car but dropped the idea. "It’s obvious that driving would be more comfortable, but it’s expensive," she says.
"I like riding my e-bike during rush hour, and sometimes enjoy a laugh at the people stuck in taxis. It’s so convenient and helpful in Shanghai, since the traffic is worse than ever."
The trend is catching on in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In Japan, plug-in bicycles are favored by cost-conscious companies and older commuters. "Many company workers are beginning to use them to visit clients instead of driving, to save fuel costs," says Miyuki Kimizuka of the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute, a private industry group.
Australians use electric bicycles in rural towns without bus and train service. Tony Morgan, managing director of The Electric Bicycle Co. Pty. Ltd., the continent’s largest manufacturer and retailer of e-bikes, says he has sold about 20,000 in the past decade, priced at about $800-$1,600.
In the Netherlands, an especially bicycle-friendly country, the industry says sales passed 138,800 last year.
In India, Vietnam and other developing countries, competition from motorcycles, as well as a lack of bike lanes and other infrastructure, are obstacles.
Indian sales have risen about 15 percent a year to 130,000 units, thanks in part to a $150 government rebate that brings the cost down to about the cost of a conventional bicycle. But they are far outnumbered by the millions of new motorcycles taking to India’s roadways.
In China, electric bikes sell for $250 to $450. They require no helmet, plates or driver’s license, and they aren’t affected by restrictions many cities impose on fuel-burning two-wheelers.
It costs a mere 1 yuan (15 U.S. cents) — about the same as the cheapest bus fare — to charge a bike for a day’s use, says Guo Jianrong, head of the Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group.
They look like regular bicycles, only a bit heavier with the battery strapped on. Some can be pedaled; others run solely on battery. In China, their maximum weight is about 90 pounds, and maximum legal speed is about 12 mph.
"For us, these are tools for transportation," Guo said. "We’re not like Americans and Europeans, who tend to bicycle for fun or exercise."
The e-bike doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, though it uses electricity from power plants that do. The larger concern is the health hazards from production, recycling and disposal of lead-acid batteries.
Problems with lead batteries
Although China is beginning to turn out more electric bikes equipped with nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, 98 percent run on lead-acid types, says Guo.
A bike can use up to five of the batteries in its lifetime, according to Christopher Cherry, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who researches the industry. A Chinese-made battery containing 22 pounds of lead can generate nearly about 15 pounds of lead pollution, he says.
"Electric bikes result in far more emissions of lead than automobiles. They always use more batteries per mile than almost any other vehicle," Cherry said in a phone interview.
In China, owners are paid about $30 to recycle old batteries but the work is often done in small, under-regulated workshops.
With price competition brutal among China’s 2,300 electric bike and scooter makers, manufacturers have shied away from embracing costlier, cleaner technology. But bigger foreign sales and demand for better batteries may speed improvements.
"We are trying to upgrade to lithium battery technology to be able to sell internationally," said Hu Gang, a spokesman for Xinri E-Vehicle Group Co., the country’s biggest e- bike manufacturer, with sales of more than 2 million units last year.
The goal is to boost production to more than 5 million units by 2013, he said.
"It’s not that we’re that ambitious," Hu said. "It’s just that the industry is growing so quickly."
In China, electric bikes sell for 1700 yuan to 3000 yuan ($380 to $670). They require no helmet, plates or driver’s licence, and they aren’t affected by restrictions many cities impose on fuel-burning two-wheelers. It costs a mere 1 yuan to charge a bike for a day’s use, says Guo Jianrong, head of the Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group. Their maximum weight is about 40kg, and maximum legal speed is about 20 km/h.
A bike can use up to five of the batteries in its lifetime, according to Christopher Cherry, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. A Chinese-made battery containing 10kg of lead can generate nearly 7kg of lead pollution, he says.
KLD launches program targeting Asia, India with its electric vehicle motors
KLD Energy Technologies Inc. has launched a new pilot program designed to prompt the widespread use of its electric vehicle motors in Asia, and the company expects India to roar off the starting line.
"We have pretty high expectations, especially looking at the market," said Vijay Davar, KLD president of global alliances. "Electrical vehicles are the solution for the future for these green – quote, unquote – programs."
Based in Austin, KLD designs and licenses a high-performance electric motor system for the use in two- and three-wheeled vehicles such as scooters and motorcycles. It’s main motor is a high-frequency, low RPM, transmissionless motor system that increases the speed and efficiency of electric vehicles, according to the company. KLD’s stated mission is to transform transportation and decrease pollution through high-performance electric motor systems.
The company manufactures its motors through a subsidiary, KLD Motors America Inc., with a facility in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Key to KLD’s motors is the use of nano-crystalline composite materials, which the company says helps achieve lower power and greater efficiency than traditional, iron-core motors. The high-frequency to low RPM ratio eliminates the need for any transmission, substantially increasing the efficiency of vehicles and the responsive system enables electric vehicles to attain the same speeds and performance levels available in gas-powered vehicles at lower costs of operation and ownership, according to the company.
In countries such as India, comparability to gas-powered vehicles is a highly desirable trait as scooters of all types replace bicycles as a primary mode of transportation in cities and other densely populated regions. In addition, electric-powered vehicles are appealing as Asian cities increasingly strive to curb dangerous levels of pollution by instituting a range of strategies, including promoting the adoption of electric scooters.
KLD already has a foothold in Asia. Earlier this year it inked a deal with Sufat, a top Vietnamese scooter manufacturer, to produce its motors for a new line of scooters. Production of the motors is slated to begin in the fourth quarter of 2009 at KLD Motors facility in Hanoi. KLD will manufacture electronic controls for the motors out of Austin.
The pilot program targeting Asia is called P3. Through it vehicle manufacturers can choose motor capabilities and specifications prior to ordering.
Davar says India represents a multifaceted market for KLD with all kinds of vehicles, including hybrids. However, he pointed out, the initial windfall will be in two-wheeled vehicles as India currently digests 1.8 million gas scooter engines per month.
The problem is India does not have the capability to manufacture these engines and currently imports them from China. Whatever electric motors that are in use in India currently also come from China. KLD’s hope is that it can provide enough electric motors for scooters to start satisfying the overall demand from inside the country.
KLD plans to nail down a location for a manufacturing facility in India in the next several months. Davar expects to be manufacturing motors in India in the next six months. "The motors that we make in India will be for the Indian market," Davar said.
"India needs to make its own engines not bring them from China," he added. "I have talked to all the big companies and they don’t have a solution … to bring their engines to the next level to displace gas."
One challenge to widespread acceptance of electric motors is the speed at which they can push vehicles, but KLD has its typical engine up to 37 mile mph with a range of over 60 miles per battery charge. Some KLD engines in specific scooter models have a max speed of 60 mph with a range of over 100 miles per battery charge.
India has its own specific problems. "Everybody accepts that this motor technology is by far the best," Davar said. "The biggest challenge is the battery."
Due to the technology in KLD motors, Davar said the engines can use any battery and get 30-40 percent more efficiency out of it, but the ideal solution for India is to manufacture a battery specifically for the market.
"India doesn’t have good batteries and imports are tough," he said. "In the U.S., manufacturers can get batteries easily, this is not so in other countries."
He believes if KLD can develop a strong pipeline for batteries in India, the adoption of its electric motors will follow.
India also has well documented problems with electricity and this is a factor in recharging the batteries necessary to power electric engines. KLD see several solutions to this issue one being the adoption of alternative power sources, such as solar and wind, to power chargers for batteries. Another option, which Davar envisions as relatively realistic, is to set up battery recharging stations across India.
These challenges aside, nothing can dim KLD’s optimism on the market for electric motors in Asia overall and India in particular. "This might be a really good winner," said Davar. "Helping the country is one thing, but it is also helping the global green."
KLD is already off and running in the United States, having recently announced the availability of its E165 scooter, which contains a Neue drive simple motor. The E165 is advertised as being able to reach speeds of up to 65 miles per hour with a range of over 100 miles on a standard lithium battery.
"We have received worldwide interest in our motor system and are excited to be offering it to consumers in the U.S.," Christian Okonsky, founder and chief executive officer of KLD Energy Technologies, said in a statement about the new vehicle. "We have worked to develop a scooter with a leading manufacturer that highlights our motor systems’ transmissionless design and provides an exhilarating and comfortable experience for both scooter aficionados and those interested in emission-free, high-performance vehicles."
Buyers have the option to select from two versions of KLD’s E165 scooter: a model ideally suited for urban environments with the ability to reach speeds of up to 40 mph and a highway-friendly model that reaches 65 mph. The scooters are crafted from a lightweight aircraft-aluminum frame and feature a wheelbase of 53 inches. The scooter seats two passengers and is available in three colors: mint, ivory and black. Amenities include an extended leather seat with under seat storage and sport windshield. Base price for the scooter is $3,288.00.