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Friday, February 28, 2014, 09:19
Listening for clean air
By Timothy Chui

Listening for clean air

The emergence of the silent running electric vehicle to restore the city’s air quality is running far behind implementation on the mainland. One local professor believes that Hong Kong still can play a leading role in the development of a mass-market EV. Timothy Chui writes.

“We are at the eve of the commercialization of the electric vehicle. The technology is ready but Hong Kong is fast falling behind its neighbors,” declares University of Hong Kong Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Honorary Professor Chan Ching-chuen.

Chan, who has been named the “Father of the Asian electric car” by World View Magazine, is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on electric vehicles, and he’s not pulling his punches about the SAR government’s dilatory efforts to clean up Hong Kong’s notorious roadside emissions.

It’s moving too slowly, he says. Chan believes the city should be doing a lot more to put itself in the forefront of the nation’s effort to embrace electric automobiles — the emission-free urban transport of the future.

He points to Causeway Bay where roadside readings of PM2.5 pollution spewed out by automobile exhausts exceed 90 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s nearly four times the World Health Organization’s 24-hour exposure limit. PM2.5 particles are smaller than 2.4 micrograms . They are so small they can invade the airways of the human body, leading to breakdown of respiratory and circulatory systems. One of the principal sources of PM2.5 are auto emissions.

The government, however, has not been idle on the question. It’s been pushing efforts to clean up vehicle emissions. Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary for the environment, promises that within six months, people will be able to breathe a little easier. The city is about to embark on the overhaul of automobile catalytic converters.

Earnest efforts are being undertaken to haul away the worst of the smoke belchers and get them right off the road. A government initiative costing more than HK$11.4 billion aims to retire some 82,000 older commercial vehicles responsible for much of the heavy pollution. The program will kick off next month. A separate scheme to upgrade exhaust systems on the city’s 20,000 taxis and public light buses is expected to get lawmaker approval this year.

Loh said that 2011 assessments show that taxi, bus and minibus (PLB) fleets were responsible for about 45 percent of nitrogen oxides and 10 percent of respirable, suspended particulates emissions in Hong Kong.

“Replacing all of them with EVs could avoid the emissions of these pollutants and bring significant improvement to roadside air quality,” Loh avers. “The availability of suitable EVs that are acceptable to the relevant transport trades is a prerequisite. And availability is a real hurdle,” she concludes.

“There is still a lot of concern from potential buyers. We also need right-hand drive vehicles, which is an additional limiting factor to supplies,” she said.

“Bus, taxi and PLB fleets in HK and the owners/drivers of those vehicles need to use one for their day-to-day commercial business. It is not just subsidies — don’t forget that just recently, the taxi trade tried some EV’s and until they are satisfied and until the vehicles are available at a reasonable price, these will remain limiting factors,” she said.

Government efforts

Still, Chan is right. Efforts aimed at zero emission cars are stalling. He believes small incremental steps toward cleaning up vehicle emissions are not ambitious enough.

For electric vehicles, the government remains the single largest buyer. To give some stimulus to sales, the financial secretary has proposed in the 2014-2015 budget extension of the first-registration tax waivers for EVs until 2017. The government has already set up a HK$300 million green transport fund to encourage transport operators to pilot EV programs. Another HK$180 million has been set aside for bus companies to evaluate electric buses while more than 1,000 charging stations have been set up around the city.

The result of all this has been a rather anemic 606 EVs on the roads in Hong Kong as of the end of Janurary 2014, compared to 242 at the end of 2011.

But the more than half billion set aside to electrify the city’s logistics fleets pales in comparison to previous commitments to get auto owners to switch to cleaner fuel-consuming models.

One-off grants for taxi drivers to switch to liquefied petroleum gas totaled more than HK$700 million, while more than HK$3.1 billion has been offered to encourage the upgrading of outdated diesel commercial vehicles.

Hong Kong’s sweeteners to get people and companies to invest in the EV are also way behind the effort that Beijing has put forward, HKU’s Chan said. More than 1,700 hopeful EV drivers have applied for vehicle permits in the nation’s capital.

The capital city’s headlong charge to encourage a switch over to electric vehicles is evident, with a quota of 20,000 new license plates set aside for EVs only, despite the fact that there are only 500 charging stations scattered across the city.

Prospective buyers can claim upwards of HK$137,000 in subsidies. Beijing is offering one of the biggest cash incentives worldwide, enough to cover a quarter of the manufacturers suggested retail price of a brand new Nissan Leaf in Hong Kong.

Direct subsidy

Chan said the direct subsidy was a key factor in convincing more people to adopt the technology, since the purchase price of an EV was still much higher despite its very low operating costs, which can range from a third to less than a quarter of costs for a gasoline powered car.

Electric bus programs in Shenzhen have also exceeded Hong Kong’s. The Shenzhen government plans a spending spree to buy 1,000 green buses and 500 electric taxis this year, adding to an existing fleet of more than 2,000 hybrid and electric buses and more than 300 electric taxis.

Yet the mainland’s method for encouraging EV development and adoption is not without its faults, Chan warned.

“A major bottleneck in mainland’s electric car industry is the failure of domestic manufacturers to consider how to mass produce their products and bring them to the market. The major EV players globally include the US, Japan and Europe. Each market has only two models. The US has the Volt and Tesla models, Japan has the iMiev and Leaf, while Europe’s market is split between BMW’s i3 and Volkswagen’s e-Golf. China has more than 600 approved models for sale with about 7,000 EVs purchased,” Chan said.

Nissan’s Leaf has sold more than 70,000 units worldwide, in comparison.

“Simply put, the market needs to be consolidated before any manufacturer can seriously consider effective mass production. Without that, consumers won’t get to reap the savings from operating an EV, because the initial purchase price will remain high,” Chan said.

The key is for the central government to change its policies which rewarded the production of prototypes but not mass marketable EVs, Chan said.

“Hong Kong can still take the initiative to help the nation convert its urban fleets into electric vehicles,” Chan said. “They should focus on developing the business model for electric fleets,” he added.

“The MTR is one of Hong Kong’s “best practices,” which has been shared with the mainland. The development of one of the world’s most successful and profitable mass transit systems also serves as the perfect template for how to leverage the costs and risks of large-scale EV adoption,” Chan said.

The MTR was largely backed by foreign venture capital with the government acting as guarantor. In a similar way, the government should help facilitate the purchase of fleets from manufactures for users, allowing them to pay operational savings over time, he said.

Chan also said focusing on overhauling taxis, buses and logistics vehicles would be the logical first step, adding emissions from those vehicles, which make up about 2 percent of vehicles on roads, would eliminate nearly a third of total roadside emissions.

“Hong Kong is an international city, and if it can make an economic electric car work here, it will be easier to take that model international and would be an important contribution to China’s ambitious road map for expanding the electric-vehicle industry, improving energy independence and reducing pollution.” he said.

Contact the writer at tim@chinadailyhk.com

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