A few weeks ago I wrote about how China has 99% of the world’s electric buses. It has pioneered a transport technology that the rest of the world has yet to catch up with. Electric buses aren’t the only one either. China also has a huge fleet of electric bikes, or e-bikes, that no other country comes anywhere close to.
It’s not quite as dramatic as the buses, but China has at least 80% of the world’s ebikes. Last year it had some 250 million on the streets, and expects to add 30 million more this year. By contrast, the rest of the world put together will buy fewer than 5 million ebikes in 2018.
It’s not hard to see why they’re popular. Ebikes are easy to ride and faster than a normal bike. They’re cheap enough that even those on relatively low wages can afford one. You don’t need a licence, so it’s a very accessible form of transport. In fact, there are now so many that many Chinese cities have had to clamp down on them, since riders seem to show absolutely no regard for the rules of the road.
China’s adoption of ebikes will bring prices down for everyone, and this highlights an under-appreciated role that China plays in the transition to a sustainable economy. Because it marshalls such enormous economies of scale, China’s domestic market can accelerate the take-up of green technologies. Hundreds of companies are competing for a slice of the market, driving forward innovation and finding cost savings. The rest of us then benefit from cheaper and better products as they begin to catch on elsewhere.
To give an example, I’d very much like to take my kids to school on an ebike, perhaps one like the Tern GSD that can take three people – but it costs £3,500. The quality would not be the same, but in China I could choose from a whole range of similar products for less than £500. Since ebikes in Britain are niche, especially multi-person ones, they are made in small numbers and they’re expensive. Chinese manufacturers have an eye on Western markets, and cheaper ebikes will be coming our way sooner or later.
We’ve already seen this with LEDs and solar PV. It’s happening now with smart meters, domestic storage batteries and electric vehicles. Solar hot water and ebikes are next. Perhaps it will eventually happen with domestic biogas. Having your own biogas plant at home is vanishingly rare in Britain, but over 140 million households have one in China. That’s a huge reserve of product development and market testing just waiting to be tapped.
There are issues of course. Many of China’s ebikes use lead batteries, which are difficult to dispose of safely. A shift to lithium batteries and the networks to recycle them is underway. A lot of them are charged on coal power, which is obviously not ideal – though a coal-charged ebike is still an improvement on a petrol powered scooter. There have been high profile failures in public ebike schemes. Like solar panels, China is accused of subsidising production and dumping product on overseas markets. None of these problems are reason to disregard the advantages of ebikes, and I hope to be able to choose a more affordable one in the not too distant future.