Riding a bike to school may be a common occurrence. But even with all the hills around Humboldt, with junior Michael Radenbaugh's ingenuity, getting to class doesn't have to be an uphill struggle.
Since 2007, Radenbaugh has been building and selling electric bikes through his homegrown company RAD Power Bikes. These custom creations, built out of Radenbaugh's garage, provide riders with affordable, sustainable transportation.
The Industrial Technology and Business double major first started tinkering with electrical systems in his childhood in Southern Humboldt.
"Growing up energy-conscious, using solar power and doing a lot of solar jobs and electrical jobs was part of my sustainable upbringing," he says.
Many of Radenbaugh's friends were also working with electrical engines, building electric lawnmowers, weed eaters, even quads and motorcycles in their garages.
Radenbaugh built his first electric bike in 2006 as a junior at South Fork high school. As a member of the school's mountain biking team, he saw the 20-mile bike ride to campus as a training opportunity – and a better option than the hour-and-a-half bus ride. But he was still looking for a faster route. "I wanted to get to school quicker so I wouldn't have to wake up so early," he says, "so I researched how to build an electric bike online."
That first bike went through some trial and error and took approximately 20 hours to build. Radenbaugh pieced parts together to figure out what would work best. "Now they take about four hours," he says.
Radenbaugh also decided against lead acid batteries in favor of lithium iron phosphate batteries. "Lead acid batteries still uphold a large part of the electrical vehicle industry," he says, "but lithium is quickly taking over."
The lithium batteries are not only non-toxic and landfill safe, but they stood up to Radenbaugh's testing standards better than the lead acid batteries. "We put them on the bikes and ran them up the steepest hills we could find and rode them as long as we could."
The environmentally friendly batteries performed better and the brushless electric motors spin without chains or gears, which make them quieter than other electric motors.
With a RAD Power Bike, "there is zero noise, zero emissions," Radenbaugh says. His bikes are so silent, a rider can move right next to a deer without alerting the animal. Radenbaugh knows because he's done it.
Currently, RAD Power Bikes is "all custom, all local," Radenbaugh says. But commercial interest in Radenbaugh's design began with the owners of Chautauqua Natural Foods in Garberville.
"They ordered an electric car," said Radenbaugh, "but it was going to take two or three years for them to get it, so they wanted an electric bike because they could have it right then and there. After that I started to get a lot of interest locally from radio shows and newspapers."
Radenbaugh also applied for a grant and received a $5,000 award that helped him purchase batteries.
As he continues his business and design education, the young entrepreneur is looking to take RAD Power Bikes to the next level. The goal is to create a pre-made bike frame designed for storing batteries. "We're working with a local fabricator," he says. "We're taking it out and showing it off to gain investors."
Those interested in RAD electric bikes can have their own bicycles converted or purchase a completely new bike. A conversion costs between $200 - $500. A custom-made electric bike costs $1000 - $3000, depending on battery voltage and bike style.
Radenbaugh has spent the past few years building higher performance electric bikes. "The current electric bike market is flooded with low-quality, high-cost products and has sprouted major distrust in the industry. RAD Power bikes combat these low-quality trends by using the most advanced components and technology, all while testing them on the rough roads of Humboldt County," he says. "They're actually really fun to ride. You can just rip down the street and go get groceries and not worry about anything."
Depending on the size of the battery, a charge will last between 15 - 40 miles. Radenbaugh has built bikes from 24 volts to 100 volts. His best-performance bike weighs about 100 pounds and reaches speeds of 60 miles-an-hour. "It does everything I need it to," he says. "It can go up any mountain and it can do it pretty darn fast."
The bikes are also inexpensive to operate, costing about 10 cents to charge from a regular home outlet while providing the user with a thirty-mile range. "Many owners of our bikes charge from their personal solar systems using energy from the sun," Radenbaugh says. "There is no license, insurance or parking fee associated with electric bikes, but I often find myself giving cars a run for their money!"
Although the bikes are electric, a rider can still choose to use the motor or pedal. "The electric power is completely independent of the pedaling," Radenbaugh says. So, a rider can get his heart pumping while pedaling around town, but can get that extra push when it comes to getting up a difficult hill.
Bicycles are not the only things Radenbaugh has converted to electric. He has transformed other vehicles, including a tractor. "I work on other projects with friends just for fun," he says.
Radenbaugh's business has found a receptive audience in Humboldt, where people actively seek alternatives to driving. "The local community is so active. Where people were using their cars to make a five mile drive into town just to go to the store, now they can make the trip with a much lower impact on the environment."