An electric bicycle charging station installed in my city? Am I seeing this right?!
I was walking my puppy (or as my wife calls her, our 3 year old, 65 lb dog) the other day when I saw something out of the corner of my eye that made me stop and backtrack to check it out. “That couldn’t be…” I thought to myself. Sure enough, it was an electric bicycle charging station!
This was really exciting, as I’ve never actually seen an ebike charging station like this in the flesh before. To be honest, I didn’t even realize they existed yet.
What’s so special about an electric bicycle charging station?
To put this in perspective, and in case anyone isn’t already aware, electric bicycles don’t charge like electric cars, where you need a special, high powered charging connector that is purpose built for electric vehicle connections. Ebikes charge from standard 110V or 220V wall outlets using a charger not unlike your laptop or cell phone charger. It simply steps down the voltage to the appropriate level for your battery and has a matching charging connector, like an RCA, XLR or other common electrical connector.
That means that technically any outlet is a charging station for an ebike. When I did my 800 kilometer (500 mile) Florida road trip last year, I would “guerrilla charge” by stopping at gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants or other businesses that had outdoor outlets. I’d always ask first, and most of the time the owner was happy to let me plug in for a while.
There are two main problem’s with guerrilla charging though: A) you’ve got to find a place with an outdoor outlet, which isn’t always easy (and reason A and a half is that you have to hope the owner agrees) and B) you have to always carry your charger. The first is never a guarantee and the second is something most people don’t want to do.
An electric bicycle charging station is basically just a larger, clunkier form for an ebike charger in that it plugs right into a standard 110V or 220V outlet, just like a normal ebike charger (or phone or laptop charger). It allows anyone with an ebike to stop on by, plug in for a while and then be on their way.
The cool thing is that DIY electric bicycle charging stations would be relatively simple to produce and operate, and they could be installed in public places like parks, pedestrian walkways, bus stops, etc as part of a municipal project OR they could be installed by businesses as a way to entice customers or profit off a booming ebike market.
Is there enough demand for ebike charging stations?
I spotted this ebike charging station in Tel Aviv, which has one of the largest proportion of ebikes in a city outside of China. The ebike explosion in Tel Aviv has been huge, to the point that the tens of thousands of ebikes whipping around the streets and sidewalks have become a major safety concern, causing the city to begin enacting a series of laws to regulate ebikes and where they can ride (seriously… for example it’s now a law that if someone age 15 or younger is caught riding an ebike, the police officer can let the air out of his tires so he has to walk it home. I should write a whole article on the effect of mass ebike adoption on Tel Aviv).
Anyways, in a city like Tel Aviv with tens of thousands of ebikes riding around, these electric bicycle charging stations make a lot of sense. The ebike market is split with two main demographics making up the majority of users: teenagers and urban commuters. One the one hand, it’s quite common to see packs of teenagers (and unfortunately kids as young as 10) riding around the streets after school. Ebikes are the new ‘cool things’ and you’re not a cool kid until your parents have bought you an ebike. Imagine the high school freedom of your first car, but in middle school… and with an ebike. The other major group of ebikers are urban commuters: people getting to work and parents dropping off kids at school. Many times a week I see a parent with two kids on a 20″ folding ebike. I even saw four people on a single ebike once, but wasn’t fast enough with my camera. But I digress.
The point is that these groups are out there using their ebikes for long distances and are frequently running out of charge, evidenced by another common sight in Tel Aviv: people pedaling ebikes with dead batteries. Commuters have the luxury of keeping a spare charger at work, but the packs of teenagers that ride all afternoon and evening (until mom texts that dinner is ready) are stuck with the juice they’ve got in the tank, so to speak. Electric bicycle charging stations are perfect for both of these types of riders! Whether you forgot to charge your ebike at work or you just want to stay out riding for a bit longer on your cruise, stopping off for a quick 5A charge can buy you those extra electrons you need.
Tel aviv is obviously a special case though, as not every city has swarms of ebikes like we do. I’ve lived in a few different states in the US, and I’ve never seen more than a handful of ebikes there. Back in 2012 in Pittsburgh, I was one of maybe a dozen ebike riders in the city. In Southwest Florida I’ve seen perhaps one ebike per day. I’ve never lived on the west coast but I know that in California there is a growing number of ebikes, and I think that the west coast is probably the best place to start testing electric bicycle charging stations in the US. Any city that has a growing number of ebikes is surely in for an ebike boom in the next few years, and these ebike charging stations can be a great service for the community and potentially for business owners that install them.
One ebike charging station to rule them all
The most common types of ebikes here in Tel Aviv are the 36V, 250W EU-legal 20″ folding ebikes. The picture below shows the line of ebikes sold by the largest ebike importer in Israel, GreenBike.
What do you notice about most of these ebikes? They almost all use the same type of battery, often called a “Silverfish” style battery (the Chinese often name things after animals they resemble, though I can’t quite figure how they landed on this one). These batteries are very popular here because in a city known for bicycle theft, these batteries can be easily removed and carried by the rider using their built in handle.
They have a charging port on the side, usually RCA or XLR, but their discharge port at the bottom of the battery is apparently used by this charging station for charging the batteries via the small black platform at the bottom of the charging station. I’m not sure if that’s a factory component, or if this enterprising ebike shop owner hacked off the discharge platform from an old ebike and mounted it onto the charging station to make charging easier for these types of bikes.
This charging station offers charging rates of 5A, 8A and 10A which is possible for most batteries only by bypassing the BMS’s charging feature and charging directly through the discharge port. This allows higher power charging, but will not allow the BMS to cut off charging if a single cell group charges too high, at least on most BMS’s that I’m familiar with. This type of charging works, though doing it too often can be harmful to the battery. In theory though, this type of public fast charger is more likely to be used to put a bit of charge back into a nearly empty battery, and most people wouldn’t use a charger like this to completely top off their battery.
Another slightly more technical note: lithium batteries can be charged at higher rates when they are in a more depleted state, but are more likely to be damaged when fast charged at an almost full state. A proper fast charger will start out at a high current and slowly lower the current as the charge level increases.
I noticed that this charging station has a number of extra connectors draped over it, meaning you could charge nearly any type of battery, even if it isn’t the standard type used by most riders here. This is obviously quite easy to implement, as the electricity is the same regardless of the battery. All you need are a number of different charging connectors wired in parallel to accommodate different battery charging ports.
You’ll also notice from the pictures that this particular ebike charging station is a bit beaten up. I’d say “well loved”, but it looks more like it’s in need of some love. This is obviously going to be an issue for public charging stations, just like with any public infrastructure. Park benches are much stronger and beefier than any bench you’d put in your garden at home. This admittedly first attempt at a charging station has the right idea, but in a city with so many ebike users, a stronger design meant to withstand years of constant use is crucial to ensure the success of these charging stations.
Pay to charge?
The particular electric bicycle charger that I stumbled upon was coin operated, which brings up another issue all together: paying to charge. Ebike’s use very little electricity, and most ebikes with standard 350-500 Wh batteries can charge from empty to full for well less than the cost of a pack of gum. Considering the average US cost of electricity, an average ebike could charge fully for $0.06, which is about as near to free as you can get.
I’m not sure how much a commercial ebike charging station costs to install, but one could surely be built by a handy DIYer or Maker for a few hundred bucks. This begs the question of which is more valuable: profiting/recouping the investment of the ebike charging station, or providing a charging service in the hopes of bringing in more customers looking to patronize an establishment and get their sweet, sweet electron fix a the same time. That’s an issue that would be up to each business to decide for itself, but there is certainly a case to be made for both sides.
The future for ebike charging stations
This is only the first electric bicycle charging station that I’ve seen, but there are bound to be more in the future. Tel Aviv is a great test case to determine how often these charging stations get used and how much market demand there is for such charging stations. Pretty soon I think we’ll be seeing them popping up in various places along the west coast of the US and in some ebike-friendly cities in Europe. If you see any in your town, be sure to let me know in the comments below and send a picture while you’re at it. Until then, I’ll be on the lookout!