As e-bike usage has risen in Canada, so has the number of fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries that power them.

In Toronto alone, 55 lithium-ion battery fires were reported in 2023, a 90 per cent increase from 2022, Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg told reporters in January. In the United States, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) received reports of at least 208 e-mobility fire or overheating incidents resulting in at least 19 deaths involving e-scooters, e-bikes and hoverboards, according to a 2023 public advisory from Health Canada.

The advisory details how too much heat can build up inside damaged, malfunctioning or misused lithium-ion batteries and result in “thermal runaway” — a process where the intense heat, in combination with the flammable contents of a lithium-ion battery, causes fires or explosions that are challenging to extinguish.

It also warns about the dangers of misusing or modifying lithium-ion batteries in e-mobility devices and reassures Canadians the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries are under examination by Health Canada and Transport Canada.

At the moment, e-bike safety regulations in Canada are in a grey zone; there are no clear-cut rules on the import of safe, high-quality batteries. However, some local government agencies and private sector corporations are taking action to address fire safety concerns. Some condominiums and apartment buildings have banned the storage of e-bikes and other battery-powered transportation devices and at least one transit authority has restricted the types of e-bikes it will allow to charge in its facilities.

Despite growing safety concerns, e-bike usage continues to soar and is becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing forms of transportation. The Canadian e-bike market size was estimated at US$733.4 million in 2022 and is projected to grow at an annual rate of 12.6 per cent from 2023 to 2030, according to Grand View Research.

On top of providing exercise and being more affordable than a car, e-bikes are a form of transportation that does not cause air pollution or affect carbon emissions, which contribute to global heating.

A study from the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University found that emissions would fall by four per cent if only five per cent of commuters were to switch their mode of transportation to e-bikes, The Atlantic reports.

Navigating Canada's e-bike safety regulations is a grey zone. The lack of federal regulation surrounding the import of safe, high-quality batteries adds to the challenge. #eBikeSafety

Anders Swanson, former director and current board member of Velo Canada Bikes, a national non-profit organization that promotes cycling, says that while they don’t have all the answers for how e-bikes should be regulated, e-mobility should be incentivized and the safety aspects need to be put into context.

“Every single fire is horrible obviously, but at the same time, we know about car crashes and we still drive,” says Anders. Nobody wants anybody to get hurt but it’s really important to look at this comprehensively and seek the highest level of best practice adoption that considers both the risks and rewards of e-mobility, he adds.

The fear of fire has resulted in some complete e-bike bans. CBC News reported that Oberon Development Corporation, a Toronto landlord, banned all-electric personal transportation devices including e-bikes, e-scooters, e-unicycles, hoverboards, mopeds, Segways and skateboard scooters from two properties in Parkdale last September. A growing number of B.C. strata councils are following suit, according to the Vancouver Sun. And earlier this month, Ontario’s Metrolinx brought in a new safety policy requiring all e-bike batteries to meet standard UL or CE requirements to ride on and charge on GO Transit property.

William Leishman, owner of Canadian e-bike retailer Scooteretti, says the blanket bans are unfair and insists lithium batteries are safe when built correctly.

E-bikes are an amazing product, he said. “So many people are getting so much enjoyment, it’s changing people’s lives.” Leishman says better product controls and enforcement can solve the fire problem.

E-bike safety standards

E-bikes are regulated for wattage and speed by Transport Canada. But when it comes to battery safety, there are currently no rules governing import standards.

Restrictions on the types of batteries that come with e-bikes or standalone after-market batteries are still in the works, said David Thibault, program officer of consumer product safety at Health Canada. The safety agency is so far relying on the public safety advisory on e-bikes to caution consumers against buying products that don’t meet UL or CE standards.

UL certification is a North American standard being adopted in some places. It is run by an American company, UL Solutions, that backs its ratings with third-party safety testing. The European standard is CE where manufacturers self-declare their products to be safe.

The quality, security and safety of the batteries are not being tested, says Kriti Yadav, director of strategy and operations at Zen Energy, an e-mobility battery producer and parent company of e-bike retailer Zen Energy Bikes, headquartered in Halifax. The only customs checks at the border are on battery wattage, she said.

“You can import anything into the country and get away with it,” Leishman added.

Anyone with a safety concern about a battery or battery-powered product is instructed to fill in a customer incident report, Thibault said. “We’re still monitoring this. If we receive more reports about a certain type of battery that is unsafe, we may take action on that,” he said. The public health advisory on e-bike safety will also be updated if new information arises, he added.

Leishman says this is a nationwide issue that needs to be federally regulated.

“Typically, Health Canada would be the one responsible for the enforcement. Usually, we’re a little behind what happens in the United States. So once CPSC enforces it, Canada will typically follow suit after that,” Leishman says. “We’re not proactive enough” he adds.

Unfortunately, most e-bikes sold in the country are not UL2849 certified, says Leishman. “Most of them come from China or places where there are no standards, per se, or the importer has decided not to pay the extra couple of dollars to have their product tested.”

Black e-bike parked beside the trees. Photo from Pexels by Team EVELO

Some e-bike buyers are aware of the safety issues and are shopping accordingly.

Gordon Nore, a retired elementary school teacher and e-bike enthusiast from Toronto, retired his car last year to economize on transportation and find ways of getting around that were healthier and more environmentally conscious.

After a summer of running errands on his old Trek mountain bike, Nore bit the bullet and purchased his first e-bike in September of last year. Amid growing e-bike fire safety incidents, Nore was adamant about purchasing a bike that was safe.

For Nore, this involved purchasing a bike from a retailer that was UL-certified. “I read up a great deal on batteries and questioned the salesperson who sold me the bike to make sure that I understood everything I needed to use the battery correctly,” he said.

In response to the new Metrolinx policy, Nore said that the requirement for batteries to be at least UL-certified is completely prudent. “It is possible to get batteries in the marketplace that are not [certified] and I would feel safer as a transit user knowing that people bringing their bikes have batteries that have been properly tested,” he said.

While Nore understands the concerns of tenants and landlords, if an e-bike user can verify that they’re using a properly certified battery, he doesn’t see the problem with bringing it onto the premises.

Unfortunately, not all consumers are as informed as Nore. But, “there’s nothing the consumer is doing wrong,” Leishman defends.

“Anytime we go out and buy something, we're under the assumption that whoever developed this product or whoever's selling that product would never put a consumer's life at risk, right? Unfortunately, people are financially greedy and retailers will take advantage of the consumer.”

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I'll assume the headline is a rhetorical question. After phoning the relevant federal department in charge of EV battery standards (Measurement Canada), I was told the federal government was looking into it and might have standards within the next two years. So, we'll all just have to take the risk of more EV station and ebike fires until then. In the meantime, our seniors' building has banned EV stations in the basement garage and is contacting ebike owners in the building about safe upkeeping.

Well, if it was made in China, that says it all. Most products from China that involve lithium-ion batteries are inferior quality and prone to overheating from my experience. Look at the number of tech companies that had to recall laptops or cell batteries because of manufacturing flaws in the past 5 years were made in China. I understand most were due to contamination that resulted in overheating and potential fires.

I don't understand the foot dragging of the federal agencies on immediately putting stricter requirements on lithium-ion batteries, even to enforce meeting existing standards. There is no excuse and no need to take two years to do something.

Stuff sold in this country and online services may not meet our standards and the federal agencies have done nothing to ensure and enforce products meeting standards. Not long ago I bought an electrical item on Amazon, to only find it came from China and wasn't even CSA or UL approved. Other designations yes, but not Canadian or USA standards. We need stronger regulations especially with online services, that clearly show the country where key components were manufactured and what standards they meet where applicable.

Making bold generalizations does not address this issue. Show us a single product range that doesn't have some kind of Chinese content.

CATL and BYD are the largest battery makers in the world. They conduct the most advanced research and thus have the most advanced batteries. They are Chinese. Their solution to the dendrite problem (which involves nickel and cobalt) is to change the structure of the batteries and/or remove cobalt and nickel from the chemistry. Hence the development of blade batteries and moving the the mass market dial toward the increasingly common lithium iron phosphate make up. Runaway fires are not a big issue with LFP batteries.

CATL recently released it's second, more advanced version of the sodium ion battery, something that will undoubtedly revolutionalize battery energy everywhere, most importantly in electricity grids and renewables. No nickel, no cobalt, 2/3 less lithium, lighter than most batteries and possessing very good cold weather performance and competitive energy density. All that from salt, one of the most abundant elements on the planet.

LG Chem is South Korean and was notorious for dendrite-related fires or runaway combustion from accident related battery damage. GM used them in their EVs. LG has suffered economically as many carmakers and makers of electronic devices dropped them like a hot potato. LG must change its battery chemistry or die.

All this to say that it is not a Chinese issue. It's a battery quality and R&D issue. The biggest Chinese companies are tops in both. The West needs to catch up. It seems VW and Stellantis are paying attention. Both have reiterated they'll be using the most advanced battery technology in their upcoming battery plants in Ontario.

Bottom line, there should be more ridged standards and product testing to ensure they are safe. Too much comes into North America that does not meet UL or CSA standards, which makes one wonder why we have the standards if they aren't enforced. Chinese made batteries used in Dell laptops at one point all ended up being recalled due to contamination from sloppy manufacturing. Nokia had the same issue. It may not be that the design is a problem, but quality control is an issue in the manufacturing process resulted in the recalls.

Welllll . . . most batteries that catch on fire, and most badly made batteries, could be made in China and that still wouldn't make them less safe than other batteries, because most batteries PERIOD are made in China.

We should have standards, but it's not like I'd want to give any particular country of origin a pass.

Making batteries in Canada and the US will, theoretically, increase product quality by instituting higher manufacruring standards. That would apply to labour, too.

Note that China is losing it luster as the world's factory through exposed deficiencies in many outfits, which tend to taint the whole lot including good outfits (the bad apple analogy...), and with blatant government interference, CATL's and BYD's advanced success notwithstanding.

China attracted much of its economic activity by offering access to its monstrous market in exchange for technology transfers and 50% Chinese ownership. That worked until it didn't. Today China is closing its doors by favouring Chinese made companies making products for Chinese consumers using that technology and knowledge given to them by Western companies. This is exacerbated by a maturing Chinese workforce demanding better pay and working conditions.

There are good reasons why a company like Apple has now largely moved operations to Vietnam. Some pundits suspect Apple was tired of the demands to transfer the results of its research efforts to Chinese partners. This has had a devastating effect on the city where Apple's huge facility was housed.

No sympathy here. Apple partnered with Taiwan's TSMC chip maker to break up with Intel and develop its own M series chips, which was fairly revolutionary tech at the time. The M4 chip is once again making waves because it's using TSMC's new chip process that reduced the size from 5 nanometres to 3. The per chip computing power has increased dramatically.

Note that TSMC is now completing a new plant in the US. Intel is too. China is losing its edge with yhe West through no fault than its own. This is also a lesson for the West. Accessing big markets by selling your soul will have consequences down the line. Legacy carmakers are learning that harsh lesson today with hundreds of billions in unsellable cars gathering rust in China, and with a long, long Chinese lead in EVs.

In my view, fighting climate with green steel and cement and mass timber and rewable energy infrastructure and high quality R&D etc. etc. at home is the best action that will keep wages and tax revenue flowing while decarbonizing. We sgould not ger stuck on just banning stuff, like fossil fuel emissions and exports. That is only the first step. Building cleaner and better locally should be the primary goal.

"...we should not get stuck on just banning stuff..."

Sounds like another example of the perils of globalism to me. Sure its great for entre proners to manufacture products abroad. Slave labour has always boosted profits.

But for sound products made in regulated factories that provide good jobs, local production will always make more sense. Cutting corners on your neighbours can come back to haunt you.......and the government under which you are doing business has to have the safety of consumers at heart.
These last few decades of privatize, deregulate and off shore need to be seen as the multiple disasters they have been......for workers, the quality control and for the planet.
We have EV bikes and love them....but after reading this article, we'll be heading to our Bicycle business and finding out more about the quality of our batteries. No problems so far, but a fire in our rec room, where the bicycles and batteries are stored, would be disastrous for our family.

Regulation may cost we taxpayers. But taking chances with cheap goods from away is in the long run, much more expensive.

Bringing manufacturing back home is now a trend, at least partially.

TSMC from Taiwan makes the highest quality and most advanced computer chips on the planet. It took a lot of negotiation, but the US convinced TSMC to build a second plant in the US. The fear of China invading Taiwan, one of the West's democratic allies, was a crucial deciding factor.

The famous Apple M series chips are made by TSMC. It revolutionized the chip industry with a big jump in performance over Apple's former partnership with Intel. The soon to be released M4 chip is said to offer another big leap in performance over previous versions mainly because TSMC has developed a wafer that is reduced in size from 5 nanometres to 3, and is therein able to pack way more transistors into the same space. The M chip also produces less heat than Intel chips, making Apple a leader in cooler, quieter hardware with better energy savings.

The M4 is being designed to handle powerful computing for things like AI. The M3 can already perform ray tracing functions that are closing the gap with Nvidea with respect to 3D architectural rendering, which I am looking forward to. After using both PCs and Apple equipment for 30 years, I favour Apple for its longevity and pre calibration right out of the box. Longer lasting computers that are energy efficient, perform computing functions well, require far less shop time and more trouble-free use and have good support even after many operating system updates over the years do not generate as much electronic waste.

Canada will become a battery hub. Hopefully that will evolve with strict lifespan recycled content rules to keep mining for fresh metals to a minimum, and to use the best quality engineering. Moreover, the plants will be using Ontario's low emission electricty and unionized workforce with good wages, benefits and working conditions.

There are advantages to society from reshoring that extend way beyond what companies used to save in labour by offshoring. But Apple is still largely using cheaper labour, even though it is moving operations from China to Vietnam, with the exception of the most important component, its computer chips.