Despite action plans and ambitious targets, Nepal lags behind in e-mobility transition

  • How Kathmandu transited through the death of trolley buses and Safa Tempos to hazardous air and dented spirits
- PRAHLAD RIJAL, Kathmandu

May 12, 2019-

On a usual working day, around 1.5 million vehicles fill up the streets of Kathmandu Valley with their emissions, contributing hazardous levels of particulate matter in the air. And among the million gas guzzlers, a few hundred electric vehicles can be spotted, passing by without contributing to the noise or emissions that choke hundreds and thousands of commuters daily. But these noise- and pollution-free vehicles are rarely noticeable.

As countries around the world make a pitch to go electric in order to curb carbon emissions released in the atmosphere, Nepal too, at least in principle, has decided to join the call. But when it comes to implementation, the campaigners, environmentalists and even officials and policymakers say in unison: there are challenges galore.

Rupa Joshi, a former communications head at UNICEF Nepal, is one of the few electric car owners in town. She is often seen navigating the busy thoroughfares of Kathmandu in her Mahindra e2o.

Joshi, who has been driving an electric car for the last six years, is well acquainted with electric mobility initiatives in Nepal spanning over decades from the rise and death of the Kathmandu-Bhaktapur trolley bus and Safa Tempos.

“The personal satisfaction and the feeling of doing the right thing when I commute in an e-car is immense, just like the feeling I had when we introduced and promoted Safa Tempos in Kathmandu, two decades ago,” Joshi said in an interview with the Post.

“But it is sad that the mass transit system has not improved a bit, air quality has degraded—and we were one of the first South Asian nations to have incorporated electric vehicles.”

Death came too soon

1975—Kathmandu had it all.

A pioneer mass transit project in South Asia, the Tripureshwor-Suryabinayak trolley bus, built like a mack truck, clutched tightly by reliable power cords, sailed smoothly through a fairly short distance of 13km, serving millions of commuters without emitting toxic pollutants over three decades starting 1975.

As historical accounts show, a decade of operational losses since 1990, owing to overstaffing as a result of political interference, incapable bureaucracy and mismanagement led to inefficiencies and irregularities. In 2001, Kathmandu wrote the obituary of the beloved trolley bus.

Despite numerous efforts to revive it, all that the government did was rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, and dumped the buses at a graveyard in New Baneshwor, where the buses lie dead.

When the trolley bus service was dying a slow death, Nepal witnessed a fuel crisis in 1989 following a trade embargo by India, which inspired a group—Electric Vehicle Development Group—to convert diesel engine cars into electric ones, which they did successfully.

And in 1993, the Global Research Institute with financial assistance from the USAID successfully converted seven diesel engine three-wheelers into battery-powered vehicles. Safa tempos were born.

Joshi, who played a role in the effort, said promoting EVs was a mammoth challenge back then.

“Our efforts were brushed off by bureaucrats who did not listen when asked to introduce laws to facilitate the conversion of diesel engines into electric ones,” said Joshi. “Of course there was strong lobbying from automobile traders.”

While the appeal and number of diesel engines soared through the 2000s, the government decided to kill Safa Tempos, when it stopped registration of new e-tempos in Kathmandu, despite promises, in National Transport Policy, 2001/02, that it would promote electric vehicles and introduce electric railways, trams and other populist ambitions.

From then to now

Over the years, Kathmandu has become one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in South-Asia with annual growth projected at 4 percent. At the same time, it has also seen a massive upsurge in air pollution caused largely by vehicular emissions and industries, making the city one of the least livable cities in the world with lowest ranks in healthcare.

According to the latest State of Global Air report, Nepal has the highest levels of PM2.5 exposure in the world and the major contributor to rising air pollution is vehicular exhaust.

Last month, the Nepal Health Research Council released a report in April stating that more than one in ten Nepalis suffer from chronic lung problems like emphysema and bronchitis because of worsening air pollution in the country.

“Cities like Kathmandu must implement clean energy policies at the earliest to mitigate all the health and environmental consequences,” said Chandra Pandey, a scholar in environmental science. “Policies are already on the paper; it’s high time we implemented them.”


Nepal and rest of the world

In 2018, the government unveiled its National Action Plan for Electric Mobility which set targets to increase the number of electric vehicles by 20 percent.

The plan also outlined a goal to decrease dependence on fossil fuel by 50 percent by introducing electric vehicles in mass public transport by promoting energy efficient and electric vehicles by 2050.

In the plan, Bishwa Nath Oli, secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Environment wrote that in Nepal, every year, outdoor air pollution contributes to an estimated 9,000 premature deaths in the Kathmandu Valley alone.

“In our fight against air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the electrification of the transport sector is an important goal because widespread electrification would greatly improve the quality of the air we breathe,” said Oli.

While Nepali bureaucrats continue to acknowledge  ‘electric railways and vehicles’, there is zero progress to be felt in Nepal while global efforts of transition to clean energy and electric vehicle technology have moved miles ahead.

The mileage of EVs has jumped manifold, killing the ‘range anxiety’ that an EV owner would be stranded running low on battery power in the middle of nowhere. Recent electric car models available in the market such as Hyundai’s Kona swaggers a range of over 400km while the 2020 Kia Soul EV boasts 391km, double the range of the 2015 model.

The big car makers have allied their technology with environmental concerns and have vastly improved the charging duration and battery life of the electric vehicles.

With India and China—as per their commitments to the Paris accord—working on mega clean energy projects and major vehicle manufacturers in the neighbouring countries rapidly diversifying their product lines with new, more powerful and convenient electric automobiles to meet emission-curbing targets, Pandey said Nepal’s future and benefit lies in going electric.  “And the sooner, the better,” he said.

India in January approved a $1.4 billion scheme to subsidise sales of electric and hybrid vehicles to curb pollution and reduce dependence on fossil fuel, while China is aggressively promoting renewable power as part of its ‘energy revolution’ aimed at easing its dependence on fossil fuel. When compared to the 250 percent excise and customs duties levied on fossil-fuel powered vehicles, the tax charged on import of electric vehicles to Nepal stands as low as 10 percent of the purchase price.

And despite e-rickshaws sprawling and running across the majority of the Tarai cities, Kathmandu has not witnessed substantial changes to the mass transit system or rapid increase in EVs.

In contrast, the import of fossil fuel has seen a sharp rise. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics’ data, Nepal’s annual gasoline consumption soared 92 percent in the past five years. The increase stood at 20.5 percent from the fiscal years 2016-17 to 2017-18. Diesel consumption also rose 96 percent in the last five years and by 23 percent between fiscals 2016-17 and 2017-18 which has widened the trade deficit, besides exacerbating air pollution in the cities.

In the last nine months of the current fiscal year, the country saw imports of gasoline standing at massive Rs182.43 billion, topping the list of imports.

“The policymakers should really look beyond their vested interests and replace the gas-guzzling buses with electric buses that will benefit us all in the long term,” Joshi said.

Dented spirits

While presenting the government’s policy and programmes for the next fiscal year on May 3, President Bidya Devi Bhandari said: “Keeping in mind the clean atmosphere and public health, the government will encourage the use of electric vehicles.” This is something which was included in the last fiscal policy document as well.

And some facts do corroborate the government’s plan of promoting electric vehicles.

Nepal is poised to produce an additional 1,150MW of hydro-electricity after its 43 projects, including the Upper Tamakoshi, Rasuwagadhi and Solu, come into operation. With the estimated surplus energy of around 500MW, stakeholders say it is time the government moved beyond lip service and revive electric mobility, in line with global efforts.   

According to transport sector entrepreneurs, the government’s plan to promote electric vehicles looks promising, and accordingly, some of them have imported electric vehicles and equipment in hopes of operating clean energy vehicles in Kathmandu’s polluted roads. But the vehicles and equipment are gathering dust as the government is yet to issue route permits and fix fare rates without which the electric buses cannot come into operation.

“The government’s announcement is praiseworthy but it has the same goal of promoting electric vehicles in its policies and programmes for the fiscal 2018/19,” said Bhesh Bahadur Thapa, president of Sundar Yatayat. “After the 2018/19 announcement, we at Sundar Yayayat imported electric buses and equipment to establish charging stations. But the government’s lack of effort in formulating rules and regulations allowing movement of electric buses has dented our spirit.”

And there are EV owners who are troubled by the consistent volt issues in the electricity grid.

Kiran Krishna Shrestha, who owns a Mahindra e20, said users like him have no time to wait for hours to charge their vehicles. Instead, he said, the government should focus on ensuring quality supply of electricity and upgrading the capacity of household energy metres.

“Whenever I plug in my vehicle, the voltage fluctuates in my house and I face difficulties using other electrical equipment and devices,” said Shrestha.

Officials at the Nepal Electricity Authority say although they have had plans to install “smart high-capacity metres” at homes to ensure reliable supply of electricity, they are yet to conduct a grid study to determine the conductor capacity.

Moreover, as the number of conscious buyers rise, there is a need to install universal charging stations to cater to different kinds of EVs sold in the market which come with different charging pins.

Pramod Bhandari, a senior manager at Agni Energy, who has been promoting clean energy vehicles since 2002, said authorities neither get the work done nor do they allow others to take the initiative. “We have raised the issue of identical charging pins in all electric vehicles, subsidies and promoting the use of EV in government offices to encourage public consumption many times but authorities have not moved an inch,” he said.

According to Bhandari, unless authorities work to fix the policies and build infrastructure for electric mobility, it will be business as usual.

“Unless the government steps in and subsidies the use of electric vehicles like it does for installing solar panels and implements standard charging ports and sets up charging stations at fixed distances, nothing will change,” said Bhandari. “Whatever electric vehicles we have sold till date is because of conscious buyers who seriously wanted to act on their environmental statement.”

At the Ministry of Energy and other line ministries, officials have no clear answers on when the government will endorse rules and regulations pertaining to electricity tariffs and fare rates for electric bus operators, route permits, capacity enhancement of household meters and local grids and ways to address safety and technical issues in the yet-to-be-installed charging stations.

“There are many factors to be incorporated in the by-laws and we have been mulling regulations only after sorting out role and responsibilities of all the stakeholders,” said Prabin Raj Aryal, spokesperson for the Energy Ministry. “It might happen soon.”

There, however, is no answer to what “soon” means.

“The situation back then when we were pushing for e-mobility and the situation today,” said Joshi, “by and large, remains the same despite talks and policies on promoting clean energy use.”

Published: 12-05-2019 11:04

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