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Electric vehicles and the future

By Dean Tony La Viña for Manila Standard Today
Ed. note – iCSC’s main contention in the ADB-driven etrikes initiative is its ill-advised move to locate local governments in the financial scheme of the project and its misuse of subsidized credit, crowding out the private sector instead of subjecting the commercial viability of ADB’s etrikes initiative to market forces. The promotion of local manufacturing over the importation of completely built units or mere subcontracted domestic appendages of multinational firms is another issue.
October 02, 2012 – Advances in the technology of power management, the critical role of transportation as a resource of industry and commerce, and the internal combustion engine and its own fossil fuel needs mean that no renewable energy discussion can be complete without considering cars and other road-bound vehicles as part of the energy infrastructure. Electricity was in fact one of the earliest options to power cars when they were first invented, alongside steam and fossil fuels. The economic and convenience advantages of the internal combustion engine, bringing the best mileage per resource and expense spent, and the discovery of petroleum reserves around the world (especially in the Middle East), are what gave fossil fuels the advantage in being selected as the power source of choice for the automobile, with the resultant costs of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and increased competition over a dwindling fuel source growing climactically and economically unbearable. Therefore we turn once more to electric vehicles to ameliorate, if not reverse, this state of transportation affairs.

Since these vehicles are usually charged right out of a household’s power connection to the grid, one of the possibilities being touted for electric car technology is to integrate the entire fleet, private and public, into a city-wide grid energy storage, to store any excess power generation during periods of low demand for future use by either the vehicle or the grid. Power otherwise wasted by constant baseload generation in low demand could then be sold at lower rates for storage or transport use. (The engineering problem, though, is that repeated charging/discharging wears said battery down, familiar to any cell phone and laptop owner.) Car charging can also be accomplished through renewable energy sources. The solar-powered car, by example, need not be as esoteric as those seen in the World Solar Challenge contests, but as prosaic as a privately-owned solar panel feeding a household or office microgrid, in turn charging vehicles.

Cost remains one of the obstacles for the wide adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles in the Philippines. Right now, the legislature is working on proposed incentives for electric vehicles, in order to attract customer attention. On the ground exist efforts to electrify elements of Metro Manila public transportation, particularly the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC)’s e-Jeepney initiative (the grand prize winner in the recent Inclusive Mobility Campaign), and a separate promotion, executed at the local government unit level, to swap tricycles for e-Trikes.

Here I would like to point out one criticism about the e-Trike campaign (lack of meaningful consultations with stakeholders is another major issue), aired by Red Constantino of iCSC: it imports fully-constructed bikes from abroad, rather than encourage local construction and assembly―especially considering the Philippines’ rich electronics industrial expertise. By contrast, iCSC’s e-Jeepney is domestically produced, with the cost and maintenance advantages of the supply chain being closer to home. Such lessons should remain at the forefront if we are to ensure the success of the conversion of public transport from fuel to watts.

Aside from electricity, we may also consider alternative fuels to power our vehicles―or, to demonstrate flexibility from the infrastructure, even just the generators that charge the cars. Those who have followed my series on Inclusive Mobility (then branded as “New Mobility”) would remember the mention of the Innovations at the Bottom of the Pyramid (IBoP) cooking oil fuel experiment in Los Baños, encouraging jeepney cooperatives to produce and use fuel derived from waste cooking oil collected from local establishments.

Within that anecdote lies a potential strategy for renewable energy in Metro Manila: the phased conversion of public transport buses, jeeps, and trikes in the megacity from fossil fuels to an integrated electric/hybrid/biofuel (domestically-produced and supported) fleet, freed of fossil fuel’s economic and environmental costs. If the public transport network is organized such that it becomes an attractive alternative to private car use―and, as attested to in this space last Saturday, Guangzhou is a good inspiration for Metro Manila―then even a public utility-centric electric/renewable energy vehicle strategy can reap economic and environmental dividends on transport, energy, and government budgets.

One thing remains clear. Just as the unsustainable costs of power generation on a foundation of fossil fuels are beginning to eat into our country’s economic and environmental future, so do the costs of laying urban transportation on the same foundation. Just as with the power plants, sustainable and alternative transportation power options may be costly in the first run, but we need to take that first step to survive the long run of a climatically and socio-economically changing world. Electrification and alternative fuels, even at least of urban public transport, can be afoot in the door towards our energy-secure future.

Facebook Page: Dean Tony La Vina Twitter: tonylavs

Dean Tony La Viña heads the Ateneo School of Government (ASOG), which manages the Inclusive Mobility project. Learn more about the project through inclusive mobility.net.

Photo: Dean Tony La Viña (center) presents the Grand Prize of the Inclusive Mobility Challenge for the eJeepney initiative to Yuri Sarmiento (right), chief executive officer of Ejeepney Transport Corporation, during the awards ceremony held in September. (c) Veejay Villafranca/iCSC