The roadblocks obstructing EV uptake in Nepal

Public and private transport in Nepal is taking its first steps towards electrification, but to reach its destination the country must first navigate infrastructure and policy shortfalls.

According to the Department of Customs, Nepal imported EVs worth NPR 12 billion (US$90.3 million) in the fiscal year 2021 to 2022, a figure that had more than doubled in a year. The majority of these imports were cars and two-wheelers from India and China. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Shilshila Acharya was initially hesitant to buy her first electric car back in 2018, because she was worried how it would perform. But Acharya, who directs the Avni Center for Sustainability in Kathmandu, did not want to buy a petrol or diesel car.

“I just had my child at that time and definitely didn’t want to transport the next generation in environmentally damaging vehicles,” she explains. Five years later, Acharya is happy with her decision: “It is comfortable, cost-effective, and doesn’t contribute to emissions.”

Acharya’s decision is just one example of Nepal’s growing enthusiasm for electric vehicles (EVs) in recent years. Orders for EVs at Sipradi, a major car trader and the sole distributor in Nepal of India’s Tata Motors, reached a record high during Nepal’s national auto trade show (NADA) in mid-September. 

Sipradi’s marketing manager, Aviruchi Giri, says the response has been overwhelming: “We launched two new EV cars and one ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicle, and almost all the attention from potential buyers was for the electric option.”

At a time of growing economic concerns in Nepal, Giri was not expecting this level of interest. On reflection, she points to several possible driving factors, such as EV-friendly bank loans and “a growing sense of cost-effectiveness” in comparison to ICE fuel prices. According to the Department of Customs, Nepal imported EVs worth NPR 12 billion (USD 90.3 million) in the fiscal year 2021 to 2022, a figure that had more than doubled in a year. The majority of these imports were cars and two-wheelers from India and China.

However, sustainable transport experts and EV stakeholders suggest that while interest is growing, Nepal is not entirely prepared for EVs. Inconsistencies in policy, a clear gap between growth targets and on-the-ground reality, and a lack of vision in addressing both traffic issues and e-waste disposal are some of the obstacles to Nepal’s electric mobility future.

Public mobility in the shade

The government of Nepal has recognised the significance of electric mobility as critical to climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, a significant issue with the EV trend is its support for the status quo: private car and motorcycle ownership.

Our charging stations are the backbone of the electrification of transportation in Nepal. These are just the beginning; we’re trying to showcase the possibilities. However, these are nowhere near enough to meet the growing demand.

Sagar Mani Gnawali, assistant manager, Nepal Electricity Authority

“Our focus needs to shift towards promoting electric vehicles for public transportation,” says Prashanta Khanal. A sustainable mobility consultant for the Sudridh-Nepal Urban Resilience Programme (NURP), Khanal thinks an emphasis on private EVs may worsen congestion – especially in a traffic-plagued city like Kathmandu. “Our reality is that public mobility is in shadow, as always, even with EVs,” he adds.

Government data supports Khanal’s view. Its own assessment of Nepal’s electric mobility targets in 2021 was that little progress had been made in electrifying public transportation. Suresh Shrestha, a senior engineer at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, tells The Third Pole that EVs represent “around 1 per cent” of Nepal’s total vehicles: “The majority comprises e-rickshaws, followed by private cars and two-wheelers … unfortunately, buses and minibuses used for public transportation are at the bottom of the list.”

This is far below the ambitious transport electrification target that Nepal set for itself in 2020 in its updated Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. In that declaration Nepal stated that it wanted: 20 per cent of all four-wheeled public vehicle sales to be electric by 2025, then 60 per cent by 2030; 25 per cent of all two- and four-wheeled private sales electric by 2025, 90 per cent by 2030.  

Furthermore, there are good examples from within South Asia that Nepal could benefit from. The Indian state of West Bengal has significantly expanded its EV bus fleet in Kolkatta order both to tackle air pollution as well as to lower costs for transport. And in August 2023, the Indian government approved a USD 7 billion plan to introduce 10,000 EV buses in 169 cities over the coming decade. But in Nepal, where Buddi Sagar Poudel, the head of climate change management at the Ministry of Forestry and Environment tells The Third Pole that Nepal’s commitment “remains the same as stated in our second NDC”, there are no such policies or investments.

Limited charging stations

Another pressing issue that may hinder Nepal’s EV future is the availability of charging stations. Given that electric cars claim such a slim market share in Nepal, driving one is a relatively new experience for most. Ashmir Khan, a 26-year-old IT engineer, speaks to The Third Pole while waiting for his new EV to charge at the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) office in Ratna Park, Kathmandu: “I was driving and the charge was about to finish. Luckily, I found this charging station.”

With support from the Asian Development Bank, the NEA has installed 51 charging points around Nepal that can be used by public buses and private cars. “Our charging stations are the backbone of the electrification of transportation in Nepal,” says Sagar Mani Gnawali, who leads the NEA’s EV charging infrastructure development efforts. “These are just the beginning; we’re trying to showcase the possibilities. However, these are nowhere near enough to meet the growing demand.”

The NEA installed these 51 charging points within 18 months. “We have GB/T Type2 chargers for micro and public buses and CCS chargers for private cars,” explains Gnawali. Due to demand, he says chaos ensues if one of these stations loses power for even an hour. “We need to find ways to reduce this dependency,” Gnawali adds.

Currently, all of Nepal’s charging stations are owned by auto companies – like Tata, CG, TheeGo, and BYD – and only serve their vehicles. So far, EV distributors have struck deals with selected hotel groups in Nepal to install charging points, but these cater to specific vehicle types only. Beyond this, a sustainable business model for private-sector charging points has yet to emerge.

The NEA charges 7.25 rupees (US$0.05) per kilowatt hour; its spokesperson Suresh Bahadur Bhattarai says it is impossible to profit from this. “[Entrepreneurs] need to come up with ideas to convert charging stations into convenience stores or other businesses, like restaurants, where they can make a profit,” he adds.

Growing e-waste concerns

Shilshila Acharya can relate to charging anxiety whenever she plans a long trip in her EV. “But more than that,” she says, “what worries me these days is how we are going to address e-waste management.”

Acharya’s worries are valid. The batteries used in EVs contain elements that can pose environmental and health risks to humans and animals, such as lithium, copper and cobalt.

Nepal signed the Basel Convention in 1996, which provides guidance on the handling of hazardous waste and regulates its transboundary movement. But the country’s existing Solid Waste Management Act does not specifically address electronic waste (e-waste), so there is nothing in place to prevent its improper disposal. Shivjee Sharma, a senior engineer at the Ministry of Forest and Environment, tells The Third Pole that Nepal lacks localised mechanisms to address electronic waste, including batteries and chemicals.

The ministry’s environment department is now preparing a list of hazardous materials. “We are creating this list to implement the Environment Conservation Act’s provisions,” says Tara Datt Bhatt, the department’s deputy director general. “We are following the ministry’s direction to make this list effective and we are also listing electric waste.”

However, Bhatt says EV batteries will not be included on this list. Nepal’s upcoming Waste Management Act, which is currently under review at the Ministry of Federal Affairs, will be wider in scope than the existing Solid Waste Management Act. (The ministry did not share a completion date.) Both Sharma and Bhatt are hopeful that these new laws will address EV waste management.

Shilshila Acharya is keen to see an acceleration of proposed solutions: “We don’t have time to wait; we have to have a proper plan to manage e-waste before it’s too late.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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