The same trends of lower battery cost and greater efficiency mean that we're seeing increasing battery use now on the most-efficient of vehicles: our bicycles. Electric bikes are a rapidly growing market, but even on non-electric bikes (or should I just say "bikes") we're starting to see more reliance on batteries. It is now possible to buy a bike that is propelled (or at least assisted) with electric power, shifted electronically, with rechargeable battery lights, computer-controlled suspension settings, as well as built-in power meters, integrated computer readouts, GPS navigation, and full smart-phone integration. Some might even have such "necessities" as electronically operated "dropper" seat-posts, and might be locked up with electronic "smart" locks. I figure that electronically controlled brakes are likely just around the corner. That's a lot of batteries for something that has, for all intents and purposes, worked quite exceptionally for well over a century with no power source apart from the human pedalling it.
Not so fast. In a lot of ways, the change from gas to electric is not so much an improvement as it is just a shift from one kind of bad to a different kind of bad.
Most of us have probably heard the argument that, even though an electric car doesn't burn fuel itself, the electricity that recharges the batteries comes from a power plant somewhere -- a power plant that could very likely be burning coal. There are enough variables at play that it can be difficult to get an accurate figure on exactly how much carbon is used or saved between a gasoline-powered car vs. an electric car, and because the whole issue can be politically charged (there are lots of profits at stake on either side), the comparisons one does find are sometimes subject to biases. When it comes to the basic question of fueling/powering a vehicle, I think it's safe to say that the electric vehicle might have a slight environmental edge, but not as much as proponents might like to argue. Perhaps if we could generate more of our electricity with wind or solar power, that could improve.
|Aerial view of a lithium mining operation. Lithium brine is |
pumped to the surface and put into huge settling ponds before
going through further separation and production steps.
Overwhelmingly, these mining operations are in faraway parts of the world, so they go unseen and undiscussed by the consumers using most of these new generation batteries. As far as environmental concerns go, there is still a ton of damage being done, but it's shifted from "here" to "way over there." But there could be geo-political issues, too. A lot of the major deposits for lithium are in places like China, Bolivia, Argentina, and even Afghanistan. As our dependence grows for better and cheaper batteries, we could simply see a shift of power from oil-producers to lithium-producers. I wouldn't get optimistic that the possible future political and/or military ramifications would be any better.
|Whatever the environmental impact of|
batteries might be, they're still way
better than this kind of garbage. Not
better than a bicycle, though.
But that's all in comparison to cars. What about bicycles?
Obviously, the status quo on bicycles is that they are already zero-emissions and the most efficient vehicles available. Even the production of a bicycle, and any energy used in its production, is a fraction of that which goes into building a car. Adding electronic doo-dads, motors, and batteries is a big step backwards for a bicycle. All the environmental issues I've already mentioned about batteries -- from mining to production, to using them, recharging them, and eventually disposing of them, I believe, are compounded by the fact that they take something clean, green, and efficient - and reverse it, making bicycles more like . . . cars.
Bicycles are at their best when they are simple, reliable, and beautiful. They aren't improved by batteries and electronics. They aren't cars. In fact, they're better.
Unplug. Ditch the batteries. Keep it simple. Enjoy the ride.