Aspen’s abundant sunshine is part of what makes this Colorado mountain town so appealing to skiers, foodies, mountain bikers, hikers, music lovers and other visitors.
Now, that same sunshine is helping to provide a new environmentally friendly way for people to get around town on two wheels. WE-cycle, the local bikeshare program for the Roaring Fork Valley, is piloting two new solar-powered electric bike charging stations in Aspen and Basalt this
summer and fall.
The pilot project, which organizers believe is the first and only solar-powered, independently off-grid e-bike-share offering in the nation, is a collaboration with Skyhook Solar, a Carbondale-based company that makes solar charging stations for electric vehicles, broadband internet and, now, e-bikes.
WE-cycle, which has 49 bike-share stations and 255 bikes intended for commuting and quick trips in the valley, first added a handful of e-bikes to its existing fleet of pedal bikes in 2020. Almost immediately, the e-bikes became hugely popular with bike-share riders.
As the organization’s leaders considered adding even more e-bikes to the fleet this year, they wanted to do so in a way that continued to further one of WE-cycle’s big goals: reducing carbon emissions.
During the first year that WE-cycle offered e-bikes, technicians transported them to WE-cycle’s shops to recharge the batteries, then took them back to the bike-share docking stations via either an electric car or an electric balancing bike. They recharged the bikes with electricity from a local grid that’s powered, in part, by renewable energy.
Even so, the process was time- and labor-intensive, and the organization’s leaders wanted to make e-bike recharging even greener.
“We wanted to improve the efficiency of our operations and reduce the amount of downtime for the bikes,” said Mirte Mallory, WE-cycle’s executive director. “Operationally, it was: How can we find a way to add e-bikes and also charge the e-bikes with renewable energy in the field?”
Solar was the answer to those questions. With funding and support from the city of Aspen, the town of Basalt, the Aspen Airport Business Center Foundation and the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, WE-cycle worked with Skyhook Solar and bike-share system-maker PBSC Urban Solutions to install solar charging stations at its bike-share docks at Aspen Valley Hospital and a Basalt bus stop. The organization also added an additional 20 e-bikes to its fleet.
Each solar charging station is outfitted with four, 6½-by-3-foot solar panels that charge large batteries in the station’s base. Those batteries, in turn, charge the batteries on the e-bikes. (Riders can check out and return WE-cycle’s non-electric pedal bikes at these locations, too. Since they’re designed for short, frequent, point-to-point trips, both types of bikes are free to ride for the first 30 minutes, then cost 50 cents per minute for pedal bikes and $5 per minute for e-bikes after that.)
The panels are thin and inconspicuous, mounted 9 feet above the ground in an upward-facing V shape. Unless you were looking for them, you likely wouldn’t even notice they were there — and that’s the whole point.
“That’s part of the concept and part of the beauty of the design is that it is not obviously a solar installation,” said Daniel Delano, president and CEO of Skyhook Solar. “Unfortunately, solar has a bad rap in some quarters that it’s ugly, and we consciously designed the solar station to be beautiful. By elevating the panels, it’s more or less a transparent structure, you look through it and you don’t realize that the canopy is above. It doesn’t obstruct any views.”
WE-cycle hopes to be able to continue the solar program after the pilot ends this fall and expand its e-bike fleet in the future, but both are dependent on the availability of funding, Mallory said.
With the Roaring Fork Valley pilot underway and another in testing in Madison, Wisc., Skyhook hopes to eventually install solar e-bike charging stations on sunny street corners around the world. As e-bikes (and electric vehicles) continue to grow in popularity, Delano said he believes they have huge potential for reducing our reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting cars which, in turn, can help slow climate change.
“We have to electrify our transportation because that’s such a big use of fossil fuels right now and we have to stop that use,” Delano said. “Climate change is real and all of us need to be doing what we can.”
Using the sun to recharge e-bikes helps take that progress one step further, he said. Traditionally, bike-share programs that add e-bikes look for a way to connect to the existing electrical grid, which often involves tearing up a sidewalk or, like WE-cycle used to do, transporting the bikes to a charging station elsewhere. Both options are expensive, inefficient and, in many cases, produce some amount of carbon emissions.
“To date, the focus has been on finding that grid connection, and that has been due to a lack of imagination because we’ve always relied on the grid — that’s where we go first,” Delano said. “But if you think about it, and your bike-share goal is to help reduce emissions, why not go all the way and use solar panels?”
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