The Big Turtle King: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Joined the Green-Tech Revolution
Posted October 20, 2009 in Greening China
Much has been written in recent months about China's coming green-tech revolution, leading some to ask whether this is a genuine phenomenon or not (see also here). I decided to see for myself and, this past weekend, took one small step into the green-tech revolution. I became the owner of one of the more than 100 million electric bikes in China (some 90% of the world market). .
I had ridden these many years before and not been impressed by battery power, performance, etc. A few weeks ago, however, my friend Evan Osnos purchased a more recent vintage of electric bike, a Vespa-like electric moped known as the Little Turtle King. His reviews were exceedingly positive, so I decided to jump back in for a try.
My colleague, Rich Kassel, notes that the more environmental option is still just to ride a bike and that in New York City the numbers of bike commuters has been growing (up 45% since 2006). However, e-bikes are the growth area in China. They are filling a niche created by the need to travel greater distances, still insufficient public transit systems and the hassle and relative unaffordability of cars for many people. Air quality in Beijing can be a major deterrent to bike riding and, for me, an e-bike would replace longer trips that typically would have been taken via taxi.
Last Saturday, I travelled up north to the same strip of e-bike stores near Tsinghua University where Mr. Osnos purchased his Little Turtle King. After a survey of the various models, including Little Turtle Kings and what appeared to be copies of Little Turtle Kings, I settled on the da gui wang - or Big Turtle King, which is like a larger Vespa with curving motorcycle handlebars. Though e-bikes have the benefit of lower energy use and no local emissions, a crucial environmental downside of most electric bikes sold in China is that they come standard with a lead-acid battery. By one estimate the production of each lead acid battery results in 3 kg of lead emissions. Given 100 million e-bikes in China and counting, that's a lot of lead emitted. Disposal of lead-acid batteries also represents a major hazard to the environment on the other end of the battery life-cycle.
The cleaner alternative was a lithium-ion battery. This came at a price though. With the standard lead-acid battery, the cost of the turtle king amounted to about five hundred and fifty US dollars (3750RMB). Switching to a lithium-ion battery added another five hundred and seventy dollars (4000RMB), more than doubling the price of the vehicle. Still the shopkeeper told me that half of their sales were for lithium-ion battery bikes, not because of the environmental benefit, but because of alleged performance boost - longer range (up to 100km on a single charge vs. 50km with the lead-acid battery), more power and a lighter battery. I suggested that she should advertise the environmental benefit. She seemed to nod in assent.
In the end, I rode out of the dealership on a brand new, shiny black Big Turtle King (with lithium battery) onto the mean streets of Beijing, where I found myself at every intersection surrounded by an incredible diversity of vehicles, electric and otherwise, competing for Darwinian supremacy. Amid this motley assortment, electric vehicles were clearly edging into the lead. Indeed, they were everywhere, in all shapes, sizes and formats. And it is here where I think you can see China's green-tech revolution taking shape - the product of government policies (on e-bikes) dating back to the early 1990s - even if all those people on electric bikes are blissfully unaware of it. It is not necessarily pretty in the beginning, but with all the ferment and China's legendary reputation for rapid change, you disregard China's green-tech revolution at your own peril. .
Indeed, my turtle king was a makeshift retrofit from a gas-powered scooter body. The technician sawed a jagged hole under the seat of my new bike to insert a large lithium battery that can only be described as a US tort lawyer's dream (there are two identical plugs emerging from the battery, one for energy input and one for output; the technician warned "whatever you do, do not plug your charger into the wrong one" as she hand-labeled each plug by ballpoint pen.). And on day 2 with my turtle king I ran out of juice after 45km instead of the advertised 80-100km. However, as my colleague Roland Hwang notes, China's electric vehicle companies are looking to learn from the tremendous success of the e-bike industry, trying to figure out how to build up from the lessons learned in putting 100 million plus e-bikes on the road. I expect these early kinks to be worked out in fairly short order.
In the meantime, as a consumer and Beijing city resident, my move to an e-bike has been thrilling. I am seeing Beijing in a whole new light, traveling down side streets I would never otherwise see, getting glimpses of daily Beijing life that have been hidden from me over the past five years, and perhaps best of all beating the choking traffic that all those poor car drivers cannot avoid.
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