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Speeding up e-mobility adoption in Singapore

Asia has the potential to overtake Europe and North America as the leading market for electric vehicles by 2023, but it will take new business models, government support, and investment in charging infrastructure to get there.

Many consumers perceive electric vehicles (EV) as more inconvenient or unreliable than their fuel-powered counterparts, because they require hours to charge and locations to do so are few and far between.

But this is slowly changing across the world, for example, with the introduction of chargers at some petrol kiosks in the Netherlands and outside selected fast food chain McDonald’s outlets in the United States, that can charge cars in as little as fifteen minutes.

The availability of such infrastructure has helped make Europe and North America the world’s biggest EV markets today, while most of Asia trails behind. However, a recent report by market research firm Navigant Research forecasts that Asia Pacific will speed to the top of this list over the next decade, and that this new demand will boost EV sales in North America, Western Europe and Asia from 352,000 annually in 2014 to 1.8 million by 2023.

Vincent Wiguna, product manager at Swiss power and automation firm ABB, tells Eco-Business in a recent interview that within Asia, cities such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore hold the most potential for EV growth due to their compact size and dense urban population. The key to unlocking this is putting in place the charging infrastructure, he adds.

Singapore: a case study for EVs

Singapore, where electric cars remain largely confined to a fleet of 89 vehicles participating in a government-led feasibility study, is a perfect example of a dense urban landscape that is well-suited to capitalise on the benefits of EV, says Wiguna.

With zero emissions from the exhaust pipe, lower running costs, and a more silent driving experience than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, EVs can simultaneously reduce urban pollution, greenhouse gases, and transport costs.

However, they remain commercially unavailable in Singapore, with the exception of the BMW i3, a fully electric sedan that was launched in Singapore in August. While BMW declined to reveal sales figures so far, they acknowledged that “electric mobility is still a niche product at this point in time”.

Wiguna notes that ‘range anxiety’ – or the fear that EVs will run out of charge midway through a journey – is one of the biggest obstacles in getting consumers to embrace the new technology.

To effect a switch from ICE cars, “EVs must build on existing behaviours” such as a quick refill at petrol kiosks, he adds.

ABB sees fast-charging technology as the solution to this challenge, and has invested heavily in the sector, beginning from research and development and continuing into the operations and maintenance of ABB-supplied infrastructure.

Fast-charging technology can fill an EV’s battery up to 80 per cent in just 15 minutes, compared to conventional chargers, which can take up to 22 hours to fully charge a vehicle.

Last year, ABB supplied 165 fast chargers to help make Estonia the world’s first country to boast a nationwide fast-charging network for electric vehicles, enabling them to travel anywhere within the country without running out of power.

The company is also behind the development of new “flash-charging” technology in Geneva, Switzerland, that can deliver enough energy to power an electric bus in 15 seconds. 

This February, ABB clinched a deal with automobile manufacturers Shenzhen BYD Daimler New Technology to supply fast chargers across China over the next six years. This will be the world’s largest EV fast charger network, and a big step in the Chinese government’s plan to develop EVs as a strategic growth industry. 

Having participated in numerous successful efforts to scale up EV adoption globally, ABB says it hopes to share their expertise with Singapore’s fledgling efforts.

Addressing the infrastructure gap in Singapore

There is no clear direction as to whether Singapore will actually adopt EVs. This leaves stakeholders such as car importers, infrastructure developers and potential customers in the dark about the viability of investing in EV.

Vincent Wiguna, product manager, ABB

The Singapore government’s feasibility study on adopting EVs, led by the Energy Market Authority (EMA) and Land Transport Authority (LTA), found that although the average daily driving distance of 46 kilometres is well within an EV’s range of 156km, participants were still worried that charging stations were not convenient or accessible enough.

Infrastructure for fast-charging EVs is indeed sparse in Singapore, with the island’s six fast-charging sites confined to private use. There are also 68 normal charging stations islandwide. While many of these are privately owned by car dealers or research institutes, a few are open to the public. 

Lim Say Leong, vice president for marketing, ABB, says he hopes that the public funding to be spent on another test-bed could be better spent on measures to bring EVs into Singapore.

For starters, the scarcity of fast chargers can easily be overcome by installing charging stations at petrol kiosks - something that has been safely done in Europe. Fast-charging stations could even be set up outside local cafes, he suggests, noting that the Japanese charging plug, called ‘CHAdeMO’, is a reference to drinking a cup of tea, the time it takes to fast-charge a car.

Lim emphasises that EV charging infrastructure in Singapore has to be open to the public. Given that the majority of Singapore’s population live in high-rise buildings, EV chargers need to be conveniently and abundantly located to spur drivers to make the switch.

Enabling fast-charging stations to directly send information about the location, availability, and prices to users’ smartphones would also make it easier to charge EVs, says Wiguna, adding that integrating smart technology into its fast-chargers is what differentiates ABB in the global market.

Overcoming unaffordability

Sethipong Anutarasoti, corporate affairs director, BMW Group Asia, tells Eco-Business that in addition to the lack of infrastructure, the high upfront costs of EVs compared to ICE cars is also holding back the growth of the sector in Singapore.

Government incentives and tax rebates could steer consumers towards electronic vehicles, he adds.

Yuen Kah Hung, research analyst at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute, agrees, adding that even the highest possible rebate of $20,000 that EVs are currently eligible for under the government’s Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) is not enough to make prices affordable.

The CEVS is a government scheme that encourages consumers to buy vehicles with lower emissions by offering rebates on vehicle registration fees, and imposes surcharges on cars which emit more carbon dioxide.

One way that policy-makers could reduce the upfront cost of EVs is to exempt the EV battery from the regular vehicle taxes, he suggests. The battery is estimated to account for at a quarter of the cost of an EV.

ABB’s Lim says that the government can also spur EV market growth in Singapore by helping to create the initial demand necessary to draw businesses into the sector, adding that this this has already been done in Estonia, where the Ministry of Social Affairs purchased a fleet of 507 EVs in 2011. The government’s SolarNova initiative – in which the public sector will proactively procure solar energy to support business growth – is an example that could be replicated for the EV industry, he offers. 

Wiguna adds that despite the test-bed initiative, “there is no clear direction as to whether Singapore will actually adopt EVs”. This leaves stakeholders such as car importers, infrastructure developers and potential customers in the dark about the viability of investing in EV, he adds.

While LTA in June appointed the Nanyang Technological University’s Energy Research Institute to develop a blueprint that lays out a detailed plan for spurring mass adoption of EVs in Singapore, it remains to be seen when the cost and infrastructure barriers will be addressed.

Further afield, ABB is also involved in developing fast charger infrastructure in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Wiguna believes that improving the speed and access to charging infrastructure in the region will pave the way for a wider adoption of EVs.

As the growth of increasingly affluent and environmentally conscious consumers open up new markets for EV in Asia, ABB regards EVs as a key component of smart, global, and sustainable cities. 

“ABB hopes its experiences can accelerate the push towards smart, sustainable cities in the region” says Lim.

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