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Solar-powered e-bikes for India

According to reports, E-bikes and e-scooters, battery-powered and charged by solar energy, can transform transportation in India, making it fuel independent, environmentally friendly and affordable. Now is the time for pushing this.

Electric cars powered by batteries like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla have appeared on US streets. Many more models of hybrids and plug-in hybrids, combining both batteries and traditional engines, are available. Their rising popularity primarily results from the expense of petrol. Their use also helps reduce America’s reliance on foreign energy, and they produce fewer emissions than traditional vehicles.

From an environmental perspective, though, electric cars, e-scooters, e-motorcycles, and e-bicycles are only relatively desirable compared to their internal combustion-based cousins. This is because over 50 per cent of traditional electricity in the United States comes from coal burning, the primary source of global warming.

For utilities, electric vehicle charging represents an additional revenue source. It offsets the drop in their revenues when their best customers, businesses and households, deploy solar panels on a large scale and thereby reduce demand for grid electricity.

I discuss below the absence of e-bikes and e-scooters in the Indian market at a time when it is economical to use solar photovoltaics (PV) to power them. The most successful e-bike markets are China, Japan, the European Union and the US, all of which have reliable electricity distribution and no urgent need for solar charging. China, for instance, has over 150 million battery-powered motorcycles and bicycles with detachable batteries that can be taken to the home or office for charging.

Electric cars, or any cars, cannot be India’s primary transportation solution. Petrol and diesel are expensive, imported, polluting, and finite, diminishing resources. Even if India’s electric utilities can support charging automotive batteries during off-peak hours, it is undesirable to put additional demand on the grid, given shortages.

Solar energy has to play a dominant role in India’s energy mix. Solar-powered personal transportation — e-bikes, for instance — can be a part of India’s solution. Moreover, solar power in India must necessarily be “distributed generation” and tied to the grid only as back-up.

In December 2012, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) put out the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) Phase 2 draft policy document. It calls for solar to be used to power water pumps, cellular towers, cooking stoves, and grid-tied and off-grid electricity. Yet, solar energy for transportation is absent in it.

Consider a typical university campus. The distances are fairly large, walking is strenuous in the heat, and scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles abound. At least a third of students on campuses I am familiar with drive motorcycles or scooters; most of the others drive bicycles. But using bicycles is not always feasible. At IIM Kozhikode, the main academic buildings and housing are built on two hills. Several hairpin bends are so steep that even bicycles with gears cannot handle them.

In all campuses, I believe local commuting can be motorised, fuel-independent, and emissions-free if ambient solar power was harnessed for charging the batteries of e-bikes. E-bikes thus belong on the national energy agenda.

The Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA), an industry association, promotes the manufacture and use of electric bicycles and scooters worldwide. The names of numerous vendors who manufacturer them can be found on its website. However, there is almost no emphasis on the use of solar power for charging these vehicles.

This puzzled me, so I wrote to Edward Benjamin, the managing director of LEVA, asking why. He replied, “PV can and should be an important part of the e-bike infrastructure. And it can be inexpensive. I built my own PV charge station for my e-bike with a couple hundred watts of PV … It is simple, cheap, and works well. A better design could be even cheaper and better. For places where there is no reliable mains electricity, or where it is cheaper to use PV, such systems could provide independence from central power generation and from petrol distribution…” Due to limited budgets, “[LEVA has] not been able to expand activities to such worthy projects as PV recharge stations.”

The technologies for e-bikes and e-scooters are mature. Solar technologies have reached critical mass and have become affordable, especially in the past two years.

Combining them is easy, whether done by e-bike manufacturers through their retailers or as independent, add-on solar installations by numerous solar companies. Charging stations can be at bus stations, parking lots, homes, offices, and retail locations.

Even if the rooftops of a campus was covered with enough photovoltaic panels to make it a Net Zero Energy facility, that is, electricity self-sufficient, it would nevertheless have hundreds of fuel-consuming motorcycles and scooters. An environmentally friendly campus should have electric vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters combined with PV.

The MNRE could include in its plan support for deploying, say, 50,000 e-bikes with solar charging stations over two years in educational, business, and public sector campuses across the nation. Help from e-bike and e-scooter manufacturers like Hero, the LEVA, solar installers, and others in the private sector can jumpstart the process. This will set the stage for energy self-sufficient, solar-powered campuses, and eventually cities and towns, across the nation.

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