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The wonders of e-bikes for our planet: how they work, benefits and costs

By Matt Mostyn Tuesday 19 January 2021

There’s a quiet revolution happening in our streets – and it’s not just the soft hum of electric cars. E-bikes are transforming the way we cycle, with more and more of them zipping merrily across our neighbourhoods.

And while the electric bike market is still smaller than that of its more traditional bicycling cousin, it’s nevertheless seen some pretty rapid growth in the past couple of years.

So what’s all the fuss about? How do e-bikes work? What are the benefits and environmental impacts? And what’s the future for these ingenious inventions? Read on, as we explore the many wonders of e-bikes, and their role in our nation’s green transport revolution.

Cycling an electric bike

First things first, what is an e-bike?

You’ve probably noticed that cycling has become incredibly popular lately – especially in our current Covid-weary world. And as we increasingly turn to pedal power to help us cope with the rigours of lockdown, bike shops across the UK can barely keep up with demand.

E-bikes are no exception – and even before the global pandemic, sales registered an astonishing 3.4 million in Europe alone, with little sign of a slowdown. By 2025, the global e-bike market is predicted to grow to a staggering $39 billion1.

From recreational cyclists to city commuters, more and more of us are choosing this high-tech version of our trusty 2-wheelers for exercise, wellbeing and connection to the great outdoors. But what gives an e-bike the competitive edge over your regular bicycle?

E-bikes look more or less like your regular bicycle – but there’s one important difference. They’re assisted by a rechargeable battery, which powers a small motor when you pedal, to give you a welcome boost. 

Just like with a regular bike, you control your speed with your feet, pedalling more to speed up, while stopping pedalling to disengage the motor and slow down again (with the aid of your brakes!). That helps you to cruise along almost effortlessly on the flat, and conquer seemingly insurmountable hills without even breaking a sweat! 

How do electric bikes work?

There are a fair few different makes and models of e-bike – but they generally use the same (or similar) design principles. That consists of a battery and a small motor, which is usually found either at the centre of the bike, between the cranks, or within the hub of the front or rear wheel.

It’s also possible to convert an existing bike to an e-bike, rather than buying one ready-made. Companies like Swytch sell special kits, which include a new front wheel (containing the motor), a battery pack, and a pedal sensor (which monitors your speed).

It’s a brilliant way to upgrade your current bike – and given that many traditional e-bikes are quite heavy, it also means that yours will be lighter and easier to cycle if you run out of battery.

An e-bike battery can be charged from a regular 3-pin socket – and you’ll get anywhere from 25 to 100 miles of pedal power on a single charge (depending on the make and model). Some e-bikes also come with a throttle that engages the motor with the press of a button (usually on the handlebars). 

The harder you pedal, the bigger the boost, and the faster you’ll ride – but that also depends on the speed limit regulations for e-bikes in the country you’re riding. Here in the UK, the limit is a fairly brisk 15 mph. You can still go faster if you want to, but the motor will automatically disengage when you do. 

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7 benefits and advantages of electric bikes

Here are our top 7 reason for getting an e-bike:

  1. E-bikes puts the idea of cycling within reach for people who might otherwise find it challenging. And even if you’re already a regular cyclist, e-bikes open up a whole new world of possibilities. That’s because they help you to cover greater distances than you would normally – which makes them highly practical for long-distance journeys, where you might otherwise run out of steam.

  2. E-bikes are also great for health and fitness! Cycling is brilliant for helping lower stress, and boosting those happy hormones we get from exercising. And while some might say e-bikes are cheating, a recent study2 has found that they’re just as effective as regular bikes at improving your fitness. That’s because you still have to pedal – and because you can turn the pedal power up or down (or off altogether), it’s entirely up to you how much you use it.

  3. E-bikes help riders cover more ground in less time than with a conventional bike. With the average commute by bike taking 44 minutes3, an e-bike makes that journey much less daunting. And that has all kinds of positive benefits, for both our health and our carbon footprint.

  4. E-bikes can save you a lot of money on transportation. Given the cost of petrol and diesel, a single charge of a battery that can last you up to 100 miles is infinitely more cost-effective than driving.

  5. With a normal bike, it’s easy to get weighed down by your bags – but with some extra power under your pedals, transporting your shopping on 2 wheels is much easier – especially if you add a couple of saddle-bags.

  6. As e-bikes aren’t classed as motor vehicles, you’ll also save money on road tax, congestion charges and insurance (though we do recommend getting bicycle insurance, to help protect you in case of an accident).

  7. And finally, the potential environmental benefits could be pretty spectacular if enough of us decided to switch from cars to e-bikes – especially if they’re powered by renewable energy. 

What’s the environmental impact of e-bikes?

e-bikes the 15,000 mile challenge

With air pollution being such a serious problem – especially in big cities – any transport option that lowers the amount of choking fumes we pump into the atmosphere is a great idea. E-bikes are zero-emission (at least, when you’re riding them) – and if you charge them using renewable electricity, they also run on clean energy

Riding an electric bike also causes much less damage to roads than other forms of transportation. That means fewer infrastructure repair costs, and fewer emissions from the large infrastructure construction projects needed to fix them. 

It’s not just about the quality of our air. Electric bicycles are also whisper-quiet, reducing noise pollution drastically. Quite simply, the more of us that use them, the quieter our roads and neighbourhoods could be. 

Considering that the average car journey in the UK is just 8.4 miles4, we could potentially drastically reduce the amount of cars on our roads by switching to zero-emission alternatives like e-bikes. Just imagine how much more clean and serene our world could be if we gave up petrol-powered vehicles altogether! Read more about the carbon footprint of travelling and the eco-alternatives, in our blog.

On the flip-side, it’s worth mentioning the fact that most e-bikes use Lithium-ion batteries. Unfortunately the manufacture of these batteries does create a carbon footprint of its own – but e-bike batteries are generally long-lasting, and don’t need to be replaced for many years. Compared to the environmental damage caused by driving a car, the cost to the environment from battery production is pretty negligible.

It’s also a good idea to think about how you’re recharging your battery. If you’re doing that with electricity manufactured from fossil fuels, the environmental benefits are going to be less than if you top up using 100% renewable electricity, like we offer here at OVO!

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How to get rid of an e-bike battery

Just like electric car batteries, e-bike batteries must eventually be replaced. But there’s a major potential issue if too many of them end up in landfill. That’s because batteries can give off toxic gases if they’re damaged. Plus, components like lithium and cobalt are finite, and excessive extraction can cause shortages, and other environmental consequences. 

Luckily, lithium-ion batteries (most often used in e-bikes) are easier to recycle than car batteries. And even though it’s currently cheaper to mine lithium than to extract it from recycled products such as e-bike batteries, this is very likely to change in the near future.

To keep battery disposal to a bare minimum, it’s a good idea to take a few steps to prolong the life of your battery as much as possible. Here are a few quick pointers:

How to extend the lifespan of your e-bike battery

Charging an electric bike

  • Fully charge the battery before your first ride

  • Only use the charger that comes with your battery

  • Unplug the charger when the charge is complete, and when you’re not using it

  • Charge the battery regularly, and don’t allow it to stay stuck on low power for long

  • Try to avoid regularly discharging the battery completely

  • If you’re not using the battery for long periods, charge it once a month while it’s in storage

When it eventually comes time to lay your lithium battery to rest, try to source a local recycling center specifically designed for larger batteries. Recycling and battery manufacturing companies can help – so do a Google search to find a company that will recycle it. Halfords is one good option.

They offer a free recycling scheme, and you can drop your battery off to any of their stores for disposal. You can also recycle batteries at many Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs). Just type your postcode into this recycling locator to find your nearest recycle point.

What does the future look like for e-bikes? 

E-bikes are experiencing incredible growth in sales – and accounting firm Deloitte says that by 2023, 300 million electric bikes will be out on the world's roads – which is 50 percent more than today.

One reason for the growth in popularity is that lithium-ion battery costs have dropped 87 percent between 2010 and 2019. And they're also much lighter than the lead-acid batteries of old.

Over time, we’ll likely see lighter, more reliable e-bikes, with fewer parts and breakages, and a battery that lasts a very long time indeed. Motors will gradually become smaller, lighter, quieter, and more integrated. And batteries, too, will become smaller and lighter over time. 

For politicians looking for answers to health, congestion and pollution issues, e-bikes are the holy grail of eco-friendly travel. The government has recently unveiled ambitious plans to herald "a new golden age for cycling". And there’s good news for e-bikers in their 50-page Gear Change document, with the promise of a "national e-bike support programme" to incentivise more people to switch to electric bikes.

It says: "We will establish a national e-bike support programme, which could include loans, subsidies, or other financial incentives, using the learning from other schemes in the UK and abroad for e-bikes, adapted e-bikes and other e-vehicles."

The e-bike support programme would be England’s first scheme of its kind offering a financial incentive for purchase from the government. If incentives come in the form of a grant, it could mean up to a third off, much like the plug-in grant scheme for electric cars. And in Scotland, there’s already an interest-free loan to support the purchase of two e-bikes.

Learn more about the e-bikes government scheme 

As cities around the world work to remove cars from roads and get more people cycling, there’s no doubt that e-bikes will become even more important as a green, healthy, enjoyable transport solution.

Popular questions about electric bikes

Do e-bikes consume energy? 

Electric bicycles are powered by electric motors – so they do consume electricity. But the amount used is much smaller than any other type of powered transportation – whether a motorbike, moped, or a car.

Do electric bikes recharge while pedaling? 

It’s a great idea, right – but at time of writing, electric bikes can’t yet recharge the battery while you’re pedaling. Unfortunately, this technology is just not advanced enough. Yet! 

Some e-bikes do use a form of regenerative braking, which essentially captures your kinetic energy as you brake, putting it back into the battery to be used again later, instead of just wasting it. But even here, the potential is much less than regenerative braking for cars – as there’s a lot less energy available to be recaptured when you cycle.

How fast can electric bikes go?

In the UK, electric bike speeds are capped at 15.5mph by law. You can go faster than this, but only by pedalling. The motor can’t help you beyond this speed.

How much do electric bikes cost?

Electric bikes can be expensive, with serious bikes starting from around £1,500. But they’re coming down in price all the time. If you decide to convert an existing bike, for instance, you can expect to pay around £400 for a basic kit.

Remember that after your initial investment, running costs are low. Budget for a yearly service and over time, you’ll find that e-bikes are infinitely more affordable compared to the cost of running a car.

How long does an electric bike’s battery last?

Roughly speaking, you can expect to have to replace an e-bike’s battery after around 10,000 miles. 

Will I still get fit on an electric bike?

Riding an e-bike will most definitely still give you enough of a workout to improve your fitness. Countless studies have proven that riding an e-bike gets the heart pumping in a similar way to a brisk walk. And remember, you can always turn down or switch off the battery for a while, if you want to increase your workout intensity!

Find out how you can power your e-bike with 100% renewable electricity5, with OVO. Get a quote today.

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Sources and references:

1.  https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/product-news/ebike-worth-it-electric-bike-commuting-465184

2.  https://insights.ovid.com/crossref?an=00042752-201805000-00002

3.  https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/annual-commuting-time-18-hours-compared-decade-ago-finds-tuc

4.  https://www.nimblefins.co.uk/average-car-journey-uk

5. The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on REGO certificates and how these work.