Cycling towards a Sustainable Energy Future

/ Thursday, April 24 /

Last year, the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, along with Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” sparked headlines on global warming all over the world. But it was only Al Gore who walked away with all the awards (Oscar anyone?) and, this October, the Nobel Peace Prize. As I put pen to paper, Al Gore has just made his hard-hitting Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo, while Nick Stern has had to content himself with warming a crossbencher seat in the House of Lords. I’d argue that the 600 page Stern Report did deserve some recognition, if not awards.

Commissioned by the British government, the Stern Report was comprehensive in its scope and ambitious in its aims. It rightly identified climate change as a severe global problem that needs to be met with fine tuning a set of market-based instruments together with informing the British public to make smart choices in their daily lives. However, it is no surprise that official chatter has been limited to putting climate change on the global agenda and it’s been a failure when it comes to our daily agendas. The Brown-Blair nexus, with too many rallying calls but not enough action to back them up, can be partly blamed. But the ignorance of many bystanders on the climate issue is also to blame. Awareness in itself does not guarantee action, but only when it is pre-fabricated in society’s values – our values. Only then do we see people make a conscious decision to change their sedentary lifestyles for the good of the environment and, indeed, the world. This Michaelmas term, I decided that I needed to change my lifestyle. Despite this epiphany, it became very clear from the outset that such a change was not going to be easy. More importantly, the cost involved could be a big deterrent, especially for anyone intending to survive on a student budget. Scouting for a week gave me an innumerable variety of options: energy efficient bulbs, waste-recycling, joining climate change protests with high-minded NGOs. The first two options are piecemeal solutions – let’s just say maybe that’s why they are already in effect at Netherhall. The last one, though, is another matter. Protesting the issue while freezing in Trafalgar Square seemed to me the most exciting option. Thankfully, however, LSE teaches you to be more resourceful than that, so I turned to Google for help. With its “DO NO EVIL” philosophy, Google was a natural ally in this struggle to find the right solutions for my pressing concern over my environmental inaction. As expected, Google delivered the right result with flying colours. It directed my attention to a new breed of technology making headway all over the world – behold, the time of the Electric Bicycle is with us now and it’s here to stay! An electric bicycle is not very different from an ordinary bicycle. It looks the same, handles wonderfully and gives you a feeling that only the Jetsons previously enjoyed (much to the disgust of the Flintstones).

The world of technology has moved far ahead of what most anticipated, and the pressing concern over climate change has made inventions like the electric bicycle as mainstream as ever. The principle behind the electric bicycle is simple: it merges the health and environmental benefits of cycling with a powered pedal-assist mode, which is very handy during long commutes. Oh, and did I forget to mention that it’s available at a reasonable price! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and assume that electric bicycles will cost the same as ordinary bicycles. This may never hold true: there will always be the added cost of the electric battery. But the current generation of electric batteries last longer, weigh less and are more durable than ever before. The cost might yet prove to be the Achilles heel, but things have advanced at a remarkable pace, to the chagrin of the climate change sceptics lobby, championed by oil conglomerates. I bought my electric bicycle, “Powacycle Salisbury”, for £599. The average cost varies from £400 to £800. This exorbitant amount looks a lot smaller when you take out daily use of the notoriously crowded underground or the money that lines the Ken Livingston’s congestion charge coffers. The electric bicycle along with the conventional bicycle is among the most efficient means of transport available. Yet, many people hold unguarded reservations about electric bicycles, asking why they should pay more for something human muscle can match and outlast, and that too without the added hassle of a recharge. Such arguments can easily be dealt with right here. First, most electric cycles offer 3 modes: pedal, pedal-assist and power. Pedal-only mode turns the electric bicycle into an ordinary bicycle. Pedal-assist mode goes one better by pushing along gently as you pedal with battery power. This ensures you don’t get tired, or sweat a lot on your way to work. Perhaps no wonder this is the most celebrated mode for most cyclists. Full power allows you to cut corners or focus on the traffic during rush hour. Understandably, battery usage varies with different modes. My bicycle gives 30 miles with pedal-assist and 12 miles power only. This means I have to recharge my battery once a week traveling from Hampstead to the LSE on most weekdays and back. Secondly, electric batteries have had their own revolution of late. My bicycle is fitted with a Lithium-Polymer battery, which is efficient, environmentally friendly and keeps my bicycle lean – a respectable 22 kg. This is a far cry from the first generation of Lead-Acid and Nimh batteries, which were distinctly less environmentally friendly and had a much shorter lifecycle than Lithium-Polymer batteries.

Finally, while it would be premature to see electric bicycles as an unqualified success, they nonetheless represent an added opportunity for all of us to make our little contribution to the environment, while at the same time conditioning our muscles to their peak for Saturday morning football at Primrose Hill. So far, my experience has exceeded my initial expectations. I am definitely a big enthusiast about this emerging technology albeit with a caveat – those cyclists who took to Parliament Square in a pro-climate change solution will not entirely appreciate this new technology: the new generation of electric bicycles would not have saved them from the downpour that drenched them all in their tracks. Technology cannot provide all the solutions, but one small step at a time, even in the maddening downpour, can help us inch toward a sustainable energy future.

This article was first published in the Netherhall Newsletter, January 2008.

Copyright © Gaurav Monga