e-bikes, energy conservation, and a missed made-in-Ontario opportunity for clean transpo

“Conservation First,” a mantra of the current Ontario government’s predecessor, was in that government’s hands little more than a vacuous new age slogan, which served a dual political purpose:

  1. virtue signalling to self-styled greens, i.e. “progressive” voters, for whom energy conservation occupies the same exalted heart-space as recycling when it comes to energy and environmental issues, and
  2. assurance to the natural gas industry that the former government would continue to coddle that industry while imposing impossible growth constraints on its far-better and far cleaner and mostly publicly owned competitor, grid electricity.

“Conservation First” meant electricity, period. Never mind that grid electricity in Ontario has been since the mid 2000s Ontario’s cleanest energy by far. It’s very good for the gas industry if everybody believes using electricity is bad, and that there are posing/preening opportunities for those who make a big deal out of proclaiming they use as little of it as possible, as if that is possible. There is no such stricture against gas-fired heating or cooking, which is a disgrace considering the stark superiority of grid electricity on both environmental and safety grounds. The former government obligingly favoured the gas industry over its own electricity, and rolled out the “Conservation First” slogan at every opportunity.

In terms of actually putting the notion into practice and actually reducing CO2 emissions—ostensibly the whole idea of conservation—the government sat by and watched as a made-in-Ontario e-bike success story, BionX, stopped being successful and entered receivership in March of 2018 and was sold mostly for parts afterward.

What does this have to do with energy conservation? Well, cycling uses much less energy than driving a car. The problem is, if it’s you pedalling a manual-powered bicycle, the energy saving feels more like energy expenditure, especially when you’re pedalling into the wind or up a hill.

Enter the e-bike, which changes that equation in a way that must make auto-makers nervous (see below for the response of one of the Big Three). BionX was a manufacturer of addon electric-assist bicycle conversion kits that featured a direct drive hub motor in the rear wheel, powered by a lithium-ion battery usually mounted on the down tube. It fit on most existing bikes that have straight frames. The motor provides excellent torque even in its lowest assist level (the only level I ever use).

In my case at least, this has transformed urban cycling into a totally new, extremely enjoyable—and safe—experience. Electric assist eliminates the effects of wind and upward gradient from a ride. I cannot put into words how important this is. Though I am reasonably fit, I am often daunted by the prospect of a hard ride on a windy day. Bicycle transportation becomes an absolute joy when you don’t have to worry about wind or hills. Suddenly, any trip inside a 25-km radius becomes easily viable.

I wonder how many other people would prefer this form of transportation over a solo trip in a car during non-winter months (to me, it’s no contest even in cold rainy weather). Because if a significant number of current car owners had the option of an e-bike, we could make a serious dent in summertime transportation-related CO2 emissions, while dramatically improving the quality of city life. Most car trips are city trips.

BionX was not without its shortcomings and detractors. Some have described it as the Apple of e-bikes. Its products, while excellent, were pricey—starting at close to $2,000 Canadian for a low-end kit, not including installation. A pricetag this size is a major purchase for many, and obviously keeps those in the lower income strata out of this corner of the clean-transportation sandbox. BionX developed a highly proprietary and exclusionary parts and accessories chain, making it difficult to DIY the addition of non-BionX e-bike paraphernalia into the system. Some observers found this a bit galling considering BionX was an e-bike retrofit, which you might presume would have put the bicycle DIYer as an important BionX customer segment. “Do it yourself, but do it our way.”

As a proponent and daily user of open source software, I have some sympathy with these criticisms. But open-source is viable with software, much less so with hardware. Besides, maybe people like me—who pay somebody else to do the installation—are a more important customer segment than true-blue DIYers. Maybe the plan was to let the myriad bicycle repair shops absorb the installation part of the BionX value chain; maybe that could have been more lucrative than traditional bicycles.

It’s easy and a bit unfair for me to criticize a first mover and risk taker who lives off borrowed money1 and has to become profitable while meeting payroll every two weeks.

Regardless of where you stand on these issues, BionX was an Ontario company offering a product that, during non-winter months, dovetails absolutely perfectly with “Conservation First.” My downmarket model gives me a level-one-assist range of roughly 50 kilometers, far more than enough for even long trips hauling heavy groceries. I had it installed onto a used bike (reduce, reuse, recycle). A 50-km assist-level-one ride—and to repeat, this is a long ride—takes most of the energy out of the 350-watt-hour battery. That’s one-third of one kilowatt-hour (plus the energy generated by the Steve Aplin corpus).

Driving the same city trip in a new fuel-efficient gasoline powered subcompact car would consume nearly 4 litres of gasoline, which contain just over 37 kWh of energy—over 100 times as much energy as I draw from my BionX battery.

CO2-wise, the energy saving, together with the potential cleanliness of electricity versus gasoline, puts this comparison just about literally off the chart. That’s why the “CO2, grams” plot in the figure below uses a logarithmic scale—otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see the e-bike bar. It represents 14 grams, or 0.014—seven-five-hundredths—of one kilogram. The 50-km gasoline car ride in an ultra fuel efficient subcompact emits 9 kg, nearly 650 time as much CO2 as the e-bike ride2. It also costs 48 times as much (assuming $1.10 per litre pump price).

So the same 50-km trip in the ultra fuel efficient subcompact:

  • Uses 100 times as much energy as the e-bike.
  • Emits 650 times as much CO2.
  • Costs nearly fifty times as much.
  • … and on a typical busy weekday or Saturday is likely to be a stressful traffic-snarled pain in the neck, compared with a bike ride.

Find another example of energy conservation that conserves as much energy or lightens the environmental footprint to a similar degree.

In spite of this, the previous government offered no EV-like incentives to Ontario bicycle riders. Instead, the previous government used taxpayer money to pay affluent car drivers to get a new electric BMW, Tesla, Audi, and Benz.3 This is another aspect of the virtue-signalling that unfortunately typified that government’s actions: so much of it consisted of pandering to affluent poseurs, on the taxpayer’s and ratepayer’s dime.

E-bike rebates of larger proportion would have cost the taxpayers far less and done far more to help the environment and to encourage meaningful changes in transportation habits.

This could have saved BionX, and given the government an opportunity to tout a measure that directly helped an innovative Ontario first-mover in a strategic industry, while also measurably helping its own Conservation First cause. I was no fan of the previous government’s electricity policy, but I would have gladly helped them shout the virtues of e-bike incentives from the rooftops.

BionX appears to be just about gone as an entity. As I mentioned, much of the company was sold for parts. One of the buyers was GM—yes, General Motors, which less than two weeks ago announced it’s getting into the e-bike market.4 It looks like GM wanted the IP and manufacturing tooling related to the hub wheel, the performance excellence of which is what set BionX apart from its competitors, so as to market a purpose-built e-bike under the GM brand.

I’m not against these, a friend of mine has one and he loves it. I test-rode it once, it was fun. I just don’t want to have to purchase a whole new vehicle in order to electrify my bike ride. I want an add on kit, and I need help installing it. Judging from BionX’s experience in the e-bike retrofit space, it might be tempting to believe there just aren’t enough people like me to warrant a major entry into the retrofit part of e-bike retailing.

It would be interesting to explore this further.

  1. BionX got seriously moving with a loan from Frank Stronach of Magna, a visionary billionaire who deserves a shoutout for putting money into something this transformative and helping to bring the e-bike retrofit industry close to the big time. Thank you, Frank Stronach, for helping get this brilliant invention into the market.
  2. This assumes that the CIPK of the electricity charging the e-bike battery is 40 grams—a fair assumption for off-peak CIPK of Ontario grid electricity during most of the summer.
  3. Other, slightly more downmarket EV offerings were of course also eligible; see this page. But the luxury brands really jump out at first glance.
  4. Early into an attempted collaboration with BionX, GM took legal action against the company; the receiver, Grant Thornton, published this factum relating to the case. According to a Bicycle Retailer article, the case was resolved in late April 2018.
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4 years ago

Only one ‘c’ in vacuum.

I looked at a pedelec but settled for just a ped. The power I put in is multiplied by unity. Unity is good, right?

The pedelec multiplies it by, I guess, three to four.