All the signs are pointing to an electric future.  Plug-in cars, bikes, gadgets, etc are getting a lot of play in the field of sustainability.  Sure, there are some amazing benefits of electric innovation… emissions and GHGs from burning fossil fuels would be dramatically reduced, air quality will improve in urban areas, our national security benefits by developing energy independence… the list can go on.  But as exciting as this all is, it seems not many are discussing the looming issues an electric economy may present.  Well, I recently experienced the bitter side of the plug-in revolution and it got me to thinking…

About two years back, I was living in downtown St Paul in a pretty rockin’ industrial loft.  The capital city of Minnesota is a decent time, but has a long ways to go to be a true urban experience.  I found it difficult to live there and not rely on my car, which is obviously not cool for someone trying to minimize their eco-footprint.  So I pulled the trigger and bought an electric bicycle thinking that it would be a fun transition into the world of emissions-free transit.  It didn’t disappoint as I found myself riding it just about everywhere… the bike was a blast!  There were several moments of pure magic on the thing, one of which involved using the electric assistance to leisurely pedal past a cyclist in full bike gear who was huffing and puffing up a hill.  Boy did I feel like champion!  Unfortunately my relationship with the e-bike would be more of an affair than a marriage… this past winter I left it uncharged for about a month when I was in New Zealand over the holidays and the battery fell asleep.  I called the dealer to see if I could troubleshoot it back to life… no love.  The lithium ion battery is kinda like a loaf of bread… once it goes stale, there’s no reviving it back to an edible state.  So I got about a season and a half of riding into my bike and the battery crapped out.  I looked into a new battery but was discouraged to discover a sticker price of $450… ouch!  The battery-less bike is now sitting in my closet collecting dust…

Obviously I’m not happy with how my first venture into the world of electric transit went down, and I’m particularly worried because my experience will be replicated by millions of others in coming years, potentially turning many off of ‘clean’ technologies.  What’s worse is that the stakes will only be higher as people will be buying not only e-bikes but electric cars, which are financially and emotionally much larger investments.

Another factor that not many seem to be discussing is the lifecycle of a battery-based transportation industry.  For starters, the mining of lithium (and other metals like lead, nickel and cadmium) is environmentally destructive… the chemicals themselves are quite toxic and daily exposure to them in our cars, bikes, electronics etc is a risk for bio-accumulation.  Lithium (the cleanest chemical of the lot) has been proven to cause fetal harm in pregnant women (although I don’t imagine too many pregnant women carrying around car batteries, but ya never know!). Correspondingly, the source for much of the world’s lithium lies in areas of the world that are relatively volatile, Bolivia and China specifically… and on this note, many are questioning if there is even enough lithium out there to supply the demand for millions of electric cars to hit our roads…. ‘peak oil’ could easily become ‘peak lithium’.  Also, disposal and recyclability become major issues in how to deal with all the batteries that are no longer functioning… And then there’s the obvious issue of electricity production… the majority of energy needed to charge batteries will come from existing coal plants…

By no means am I suggesting that electric cars and bikes are no good… they would be vast improvements over our current collection of pollution-spewing options out there… I guess I’m just saying they should not be seen as silver bullet solutions.  I learned a valuable lesson with my e-bike that when it comes to technology, good intentions are not always enough to create a positive experience.  Simplicity and mindful design will always trump technology.  I now ride a road bike everywhere and enjoy the reassurance that not only will it never have any goofy glitches to deal with, but it truly is an emissions-free vehicle.  The same can go for transit infrastructure.  Creating communities that are walkable, bikeable or have great mass transit will eliminate the need for many individuals to have personal vehicles in the first place… these are the sort of solutions that will bring us closer to a thrivable world.

-j

About Joshua Foss


Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.