The electric bicycle revolution is profitable but not perfect

The e-bike industry has blossomed in China but hurdles still remain for making the vehicles as environmentally friendly as they could ultimately be.

China's biggest electric bicycle maker is Xinri, which is located in Wuxi in Jiangsu province, a town that produces 3.5 million e-bikes a year. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xinri provided electric bicycles and an electric car for use by police at the landmark Bird's Nest stadium. The company had sales of more than 2 million units last year. Other market leaders include Jiangsu Yadea Technical Development Company, known as Yadea, which makes electric bicycles as well as scooters.

Luyuan Electric Vehicle Company, set up in Jinhua in the industrial province of Zhejiang in 1996, has 1,800 workers and its 12 production lines can produce up to 1 million bikes a year. Top-shelf e-bikes usually carry four lead-acid batteries, which weigh as much as 28kg. While electric bikes do not emit greenhouse gases, they are not totally environmentally friendly. Getting rid of old batteries properly is a problem and the government has introduced schemes intended to regulate their disposal. Encouraging companies to come up with cleaner, greener batteries is also an issue as the market is highly diversified and price competition is intense.

The state-backed research group Antaike estimated the production of e-bikes accounted for 26 per cent of China's refined lead consumption at 2.9 million tonnes in 2008, just behind the car sector, which accounted for 28.5 per cent. That amounts to 754,000 tonnes of refined lead used to make electric bicycles. China, the world's top refined lead consumer and producer, was expected to use 3.37 million tonnes of the metal last year, Antaike estimated.