By Stephen Seitz
WOODSTOCK –There may be nothing new under the sun, but Karl Kenmitzer is adept at finding new ways to use it.
Kenmitzer, of Hartland, has lived off the electrical grid for almost 30 years, and he has built a pair of solar-assisted bicycles called solar cargo bikes.
“Transportation is our largest use of energy, and I wanted to use my car less,” Kenmitzer told a gathering in Woodstock’s Norman Williams Library Wednesday afternoon, May 27. “My second bike has gone 1,100 miles, and it’s worked out nicely as a car substitute.”
Kenmitzer has two cargo bikes: one resembles a converted shopping cart mounted on a long bike frame, its solar panel lying flat on the top. The other (the model he brought to the library) has the solar panel and electric motor in the back.
A loaded cargo bike can be quite heavy; many people use them to transport children, and of course, groceries. Heavy loads on bicycles can be physically draining, especially on steep Vermont hills. So his electric cargo bikes provide motorized pedal assistance for tougher and steeper surfaces.
Kenmitzer said he’d like to get to the point where solar power will do all the work.
“In the future, I plan to put a solar panel over my head,” he said. “That’ll generate 200 watts, and the bike can run on its own.”
Cargo bikes are commercially available, and have found a strong following in the Netherlands, where bicycles are a popular means of getting around, and they have a growing following in the United States. Retailers charge anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000, but Kenmitzer said he built his own for much less.
“The parts for this one cost $1,500, and you’d probably double that if you added labor,” he said. “It’ll run you $5,000 or $6,000 if you import one from Europe.”
Kenmitzer is not alone in his enthusiasm for cargo bikes. He does research and development for Vbike, a bicycling advocacy organization working to promote bicycling in Vermont as an alternative to cars. Vbike is working with the state Agency of Transportation’s Go! Vermont program to find new and innovative solutions to bicycle design and technology, according to a joint statement released on May 20.
“One of the most notable signs of a significant bike boom occurring in the United States are the 38 major bike share programs that have been established since 2007, with plenty more on the way,” the statement read. “However, a significant piece of this bike transportation trend is being driven by recent innovations, including the latest electric-assist options and cargo bikes, which profoundly expand the range, carrying capacity (children and cargo), hill climbing ease, comfort and overall utility of biking.”
Vbike has a contract with Go! Vermont to consult with families and businesses on how best to meet their needs through bicycling. The Vermont State Employees Credit Union also offers a low-interest loan program for those who wish to explore bikes as a means of transportation.
Kenmitzer said that, while he often uses his cargo bike, he didn’t ride it to the presentation.
“If I want to show it, I can’t take a chance on getting it dirty,” he said. “But I’ve taken it to the top of Mount Washington, and I’ve ridden it in the rain. It’s fine if I’m dressed for it.”
Kenmitzer said he first got off the grid when he lived in the Northeast Kingdom, because the nearest power line was three miles away from his home.
“When I came to Hartland, it was half a mile to a power line. Even in 1991, I knew I could do it myself. Most of my power is solar, and I have a generator for December and January. You could say this bike was built with solar power.”