There was a time (and I can remember it) when the streets of Shanghai at rush hour were a manic surge of bicycles either waiting at lights or streaming across junctions. Those have now gone, to be replaced by the roar of autos and the hum of electric bikes. Currently there are approximately 140 million e-bikes and scooters in use in China. Last year, China manufactured about 25 million EV 2-wheelers, of which some 600,000 were exported according to EVU Update. A China source is quoted as saying,?“We estimate the annual growth of EV2wheelers in China will maintain 10% or more than that. In 2015, we estimate the production volume will reach 35 million and export volume will reach 2 million.” They offer low-cost personal mobility, can be stored indoors or securely by apartment dwellers and for the authorities fighting pollution have the great attraction of being non-polluting – at least at the point of use. More than 90 Chinese cities ban petrol-powered motorcycles, providing a huge benefit to e-bike manufacturers.
The power sources are predominantly advanced lead-acid batteries, although Li-ion is gradually eating into the heavy metal’s market share. Businessweek reports that overall, the market for lead-acid batteries will grow from 83 GWh valued at $9.4 billion this year to 165 GWh valued at $16.1 billion by 2016. Gradually, Li-ion is making inroads supported by the intensely competitive nature of the market. There are some 800 e-bike manufacturers involved in mass production, never-mind the 2,600 approved manufacturers that include many assemblers. Differentiation at the top end can only be achieved by innovation such as lighter, more powerful batteries using Li-ion. Government-supported R&D and Li-ion battery exports are supported by tax breaks, further stimulating uptake. Even as lead use grows in absolute terms, Li-ion is growing alongside.
Nor is Li-ion battery development playing solely to the e-bike tune. While major EV car models like the Volt and Leaf get the headline attention, the market is being driven much faster by what are termed micro hybrid vehicles, meaning those that use storage towards stop/start and regenerative breaking applications, neither of which require drastic changes to existing car designs or rely on radically new technologies. Global growth is set to explode from a current lowly 5.1 GWh worth just $495 million today to some 41 GWh worth $3.1 billion in just five years.
China is not so unique in terms of city density, levels of disposable income and problems with pollution to make the China e-bike phenomenon unique. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and even Brazil could develop similar e-bike cultures. However it is not a Chinese market industry that foreign manufacturers have much chance of breaking into, unlike auto manufacturing where the greater product sophistication gave western car makers an advantage in breaking into China. But metal demand, particularly lead and lithium growth, is already having a very significant impact on world prices as a result of e-bikes, and shows little sign of abating much before the second half of the decade.
By. Stuart Burns
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