Blog: BikeSocial solves the electric challenge

Steve Rose
By Steve Rose

BikeSocial Publisher. Has been riding since before Frankie said ‘Relax’, owned more than 100 bikes and has written for, edited or published most of the UK’s best known bike magazines. Strangely attracted to riding high miles in all weathers, finds track days ‘confusing’ and describes the secret to better riding as ‘being invincible’. 

Steve Rose

 

A couple of Swiss riders recently set a record riding 1260km in 24 hours on an Energica electric superbike. Energica are the most prominent of the serious electric motorcycle manufacturers, having brought a credible machine to production, successfully completed a couple of TT Zero races and, now an endurance record too. The Energica Ego used 126 kWh of power to complete the 844 miles at an average speed of 35mph including charging time. Energica claim that the bike’s power consumption is equivalent to 12 litres of fuel which equates to 319mpg.

That’s impressive because assuming roughly half the 24 hours was spent charging the battery, then, the average speed for time spent on the road was closer to 70mph and there aren’t many petrol-powered bikes that could average 70mph and 319mpg (or even 35mph and 319mpg for that matter).

So far so good for the power of sparks, but sadly there’s a catch. The Energica Ego costs £28,000. For that price I could buy a brand-new BMW S1000RR in sooper-dooperist R-Sport (are you going to tell them, or shall I?) spec for £15,205 and 2087 gallons of super unleaded at my local garage. Assuming I get around 40mpg at road speeds, that’s a bike that shattered records at the Superstock TT this year plus 83,504 miles of free fuel (or 20 years’ riding at an average of 4000 miles per year) for the same price as the Energica, which will be slower, less nimble and much less likely to last 20 years than the S1000RR. The BMW makes 199bhp and weighs 179kg, while the Energica makes the equivalent of 145bhp and weighs 258kg. Turn those figures into power : weight ratios and you get 1.11:1 (BMW) vs 0.56:1 (Energica), meaning the BMW has twice the power : weight ratio as the electric bike. Take all that into account and it no longer matters how many mpg equivalents the electric bike does, it’s an enormous white elephant and no one in their right mind will buy it.

It’s interesting that the only people who aren’t banging the drum for plug-in electric motorcycles are the people who make the conventional ones. None of the major manufacturers has shown any interest in an all-electric motorcycle. Honda has the resources, brainpower and curiosity to build what they like and has a Hydrogen-powered electric car in production, Ducati can draw on all of VW/Audi group’s expertise while BMW (not exactly short of resources either) and Yamaha have never been shy of trying something different. But no one is making one.

Electric vehicles, charged from the mains are not the answer to our transport problems. The reason has nothing to do with the technology or charging time – because all of that will be fixed eventually - it’s about (ironically) energy costs and the environment.

Right now, in the UK, the typical electricity cost of around 13p/kWh reflects the wholesale price of whatever fuel a power station uses to turn the turbines, plus the infrastructure, plus a healthy profit for the French state-owned power companies who run most of the ‘privatised’ UK power industry. If one per cent of the UK’s 25 million car drivers swapped to an electric vehicle that would be 250,000 people requiring additional electricity. Energica claim that a typical small electric car would use around 630kWh to travel the 844 miles recorded by their bike, so scaling that up to the UK drivers’ average of 10,000 miles a year, would be 7500 kWh per car per year. A typical UK household uses 4000kWh per year so every electric car is like running an additional 1.8 houses every year. So, if 250,000 UK drivers bought an electric car the added drain on the grid would be like building 465,528 additional houses which is 150 per cent more houses than the UK builds every year.

Within a very short time the demands on our national Grid would be far outstripping supply and to compensate, the power companies would have to build more capacity and buy more fuel which would put up the price of electricity…for everyone.

To power more electric cars your gran will suddenly find the cost of boiling an egg and heating her flat will increase dramatically. This potential gran-o-cide is the reason we will never get close to mass electric vehicle ownership if plugging them into the mains is our only option.

Hydrogen might be one answer. A Hydrogen powered vehicle is simply an electric vehicle whose sparks are provided by a chemical reaction using Hydrogen rather than a rechargeable battery. Toyota are working with UK based company Powerhouse on a project that turns household waste into Hydrogen (a bit like the DeLorean in Back to the Future) and they already have a facility in America producing the gas from animal manure.

A world powered by renewable Hydrogen might not be too far away, but in the meantime, here’s the BikeSocial plan for a better interim solution. Instead of persuading a small number of the 25M car drivers to go electric and banning petrol cars after 2040, the Government should electrify the haulage industry. Trucking laws already require drivers to do a certain number of hours and then take an enforced rest, so charging would fit well with this. Specifically, they can do no more than nine hours per day and have to take at least a 45-minute break every four and a half hours.

Let’s assume the manufacturers could build a truck with a 250-mile range and a typical truck can average 40mph. If the service stations replaced the HGV part of fuel forecourts with rows of fast chargers that could top em up in an hour, or a stack of ready-charged battery packs that could be swapped for the flat one (the fuel supplier owns the batteries and the haulage company leases them on a monthly contract where they pay for packs swapped), a driver could pull in, have a break, work on their free-motion embroidery and fill up their sparks.

It works with haulage because an industry already paying huge running costs could be subsidised via incentives such as tax breaks and the working lifespan of a truck is much shorter than a typical private car, meaning the technology can advance faster because turnover and scrappage is so much higher. There are currently around 300,000 HGVs in the UK. A typical 33-tonner averages 9mpg and so would seriously benefit from the cost savings switching to electric would bring.

Plus, the demand is roughly consistent so the power companies and forecourts could plan their requirements and fund the new power stations (or solar installations along the motorway and main road network) knowing they had sustainable income coming in from the trucks. And because a large percentage of commercial traffic would now be electric, not diesel, the clean air limits for cities would be easier to achieve without punishing private vehicles. And the incentive for trucking companies to save costs would encourage manufacturers to develop the technologies faster. In the meantime, private drivers and riders could enjoy a gradual and phased transition into hybrids and the Hydrogen cars, which the manufacturers would develop faster because they no longer had to muck about pretending to be interested in plug-in electric vehicles to keep the governments off their backs.

Now, I’m only a motorcyclist with a drum kit, not a boffin and surely, if I can come up with this in my lunch hour, someone with a bigger brain and better attention span can work out the details that I’m bound to have missed. Because so far, it’s the best plan I’ve heard.

What do you think? Let us know on editorial@bikesocial.co.uk

 

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