Since August, just four of Kong Pharith’s solar bicycles have been put for sale. The inventor spent five years looking at ways to attach solar panels and a battery to a bicycle runs electrically.
“The research is finished, and it is the first time that [the bicycle] has been put for sale in public,” Kong Parith said.
Costing $450, about the price of a second-hand motorcycle, the bicycle is not cheap. Neither is it handsome. But it can help save energy, and in the long run save money for its rider, traveling up to 10 kilometers, at a maximum speed of 30 kilometers per hour.
Kong Pharith said his bicycle can be used only for short distances. Still, he hopes it will reduce pollution, and he has so far built 10 of them, having come up with the idea in 2004 and experimenting on prototypes until he had a viable vehicle. He sells them directly from his workshop.
“We spent a lot of time on research, in order to consume less electricity and make it lighter and easier to ride than bicycles imported from China,” he said.
Electric bicycles from China are becoming more popular with Cambodians who seek to save money on short-distance rides. They need electric plug-ins, however, and are only viable in urban environments where power is available.
Kong Pharith said his bicycle is easier on people, as it can draw power from the sun or the electric grid. Charged by plug-in, the bicycle can travel up to 20 kilometers.
However, vendors worry the bicycle won’t be able to compete on the market.
“Its price is an obstacle, because people prefer to use cheaper bicycles if they don’t earn much money,” said Tang Meng Ly, the first solar bicycle seller in Phnom Penh.
“If we talk about its advantages, it is good,” said Ngin Navirak, a small grant project coordinator for UNDP. “But the price is too high, if we compare it with other battery bicycles we can buy for $100. So this bicycle can’t compete in the market.”
The solar bicycle is also hard to ride, especially for women, as it is “high and heavy,” she said.
Kong Pharith said he recognized these weaknesses and was working to improve the bike’s look to help it compete. He hopes to produce five to 10 per month, but if the market gets bigger, he’ll be able to keep up, he said.
The government doesn’t have any specific programs to support the project, though officials encourage the use of solar bicycles, as well as bio-fuel, to help protect the environment, said Sath Samy, secretary of state for the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Meanwhile, Kong Pharith is setting his sights higher. He is now at work on a building a solar car.