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Wind in hair, sun in fuel tank

May 30, 2007|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

I'D been riding for years before I learned motorcycles' dirty little secret. Mile per mile, some bikes actually spew more gunk into the air than cars, pickup trucks or SUVs, even if they do use less gas. It was a sickening realization, since I'd spent so much time believing the opposite was true.

That's why the prospect of a performance-oriented electric bike is so appealing.

Of course, an electric motorcycle isn't the same as a zero-emissions motorcycle. An electric bike's environmental friendliness depends, for the most part, on where it's plugged in: What's the energy source that's powering the outlet?

Most of the electricity in this country is supplied by coal-fueled plants, so if you're plugging an electric bike into your outlet, you could say your bike is basically coal-powered. It's using less energy, and therefore polluting less than a gas-powered bike, but it's still using a fossil fuel and it isn't zero-emission.

The idea behind the Lightning Motors is to make a bike that's electric and zero-emission, courtesy of solar power.

Most Americans don't live "off the grid," and installing solar panels isn't cheap. Add the cost of a solar power installation to the price of a motorcycle, and it starts to get a little outrageous. But that's short-term thinking. In the long term, it might make a lot of sense.

Say you're a commuter, riding a real Yamaha R1 about 80 miles round trip each day. You're probably putting $8 worth of gas in your tank daily. That means you're shelling out about $2,000 a year for gas.

By solar expert Richard Hatfield's math, you're a quarter of the way toward the cost of a solar-panel installation that would support regular charging of a bike like his R1 conversion, which uses about 8 kilowatts of power to travel 80 miles at an average speed of 65 mph. Creating 8 kilowatts using solar power would require a 1.2-kilowatt setup, Hatfield says. That's a solar panel roughly the size of two sheets of plywood with an installation cost of about $8,000.

The batteries for the Lightning Lithium we tested (see accompanying article) are rated for 3,000 charges. For a daily commuter, that translates into about 10 years of life. With Hatfield's solar power scenario, that means the last six years of the batteries' life are basically free.

At least, that's the theory. These batteries are so new that they haven't been tested in the real world to verify the math, but as gas heads toward $4 a gallon, it's an interesting idea to ponder.

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