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The future is electric!

The future is electric!

04 Apr 2023

We have long enjoyed the benefits of electricity wired to our homes and workplaces. This electricity is for the most part generated by burning gas or coal and from power captured via hydroelectric dams. The electricity grid is well developed and forms a very efficient distribution network with a few centralised sources of power generation where emissions can be controlled and where the energy source over time can be converted to lower CO2 emissions from renewable energy sources in a gradual transition.

We also consume energy in many other forms by burning propane, butane, petrol and diesel in industry, for cooking and for transportation. All these disparate uses can utilise electricity instead, which brings with it many advantages. The pluses include riding on an existing distribution network, having no local CO2 emissions and often more compact installations, with less waste in the form of heat and noise. Envision a future with no petrol stations and no trucks distributing LPG cylinders, no local emissions with cleaner air, less noise and more compact installations.

Nevertheless, the transition to a fully electric future has many twists and turns — it doesn’t move in a straight line. Opponents tout high costs, danger to people in mining and scarring of the land, pollution from batteries that are not recycled, fire safety issues from uncontrolled lithium fires, inadequate infrastructure and electrical power generation using carbon intensive sources. They omit to mention the current high cost of oil, coal and gas extraction; the complex and costly distribution networks; the explosion and fire danger inherent in compressed gas and liquid fuels and the stark and well-documented reality of the unsustainable future that will result from a continued reliance on carbon fuel sources. Meanwhile, strides are being made both in recycling systems and in the development of sodium-based as well as lithium-iron batteries without rare earth materials.

Pundits also distract attention by touting hydrogen and e-fuels as the new panacea. No doubt these alternative fuels have a future, albeit in limited applications such as long-haul aviation and trans ocean crossings. In broader applications they will never rival electrification, as they require building of new distribution networks and consist of energy-costly conversion of clean energy. Electric vehicles (EVs) convert 77% of grid electrical energy to power at the wheels compared to conventional petrol vehicles converting only 12%–30% of the energy stored in petrol to power at the wheels. Renewable energy sources see a comparable power loss when converted to hydrogen through electrolysis and subsequent transmission.

Concurrent with a push for more sustainable power generation, aided by enhancements in Power-to-X energy storage systems and cheaper solar and wind energy, we must focus on energy efficiency. Doing more with less using existing technology is very possible and one of the central aspects here is electrification.

We must make haste to convert especially our transportation sector to electrical propulsion. This includes trains, buses, ferries and near coastal vessels, off road machinery for farming and mining and of course two and four-wheeled personal transportation. The Malaysian government has already set targets of 1.5 million electric vehicles on our roads by 2040. Personally, I think we will far surpass those numbers and see the EV conversion accelerate in tune with more affordable cars and motorcycles coming on the market and the charging infrastructure being developed.

I base this optimism on the acceleration witnessed in my native Denmark, where EVs made up just 0.7% of new cars sold in 2018 but by 2022 that accelerated to 21% along with another 18% plug-in hybrids. In 2018, there were just a handful of EV models available in Denmark but that has mushroomed, and we see a similar trend in Malaysia now. As late as August 2021, we could choose from just five officially imported EV models, three of which were very exclusive Porsches. Now we can select from no fewer than 52 models of EV cars from official importers or large-scale parallel importers and more are hitting the market every month and at ever lower price points. The future is now!

As we transition in Malaysia, stakeholders must carefully consider initiatives and obstacles and look for solutions to challenges that arise.

In March, a well-intended initiative coming from our unsung heroes in the Fire Department recommended new guidelines preventing charging of EVs in multi-storey buildings. Should such an unprecedented initiative be passed, it would indeed form a very serious obstacle to our electric future.

For drivers, a key benefit of going electrical is that 90%-95% of charging takes place at home. You never have to go to a petrol station to add energy to your vehicle, except for the rare outstation trip and if you have a long-range battery, even for those trips, it only needs charging at home and at destination. Typically this is done in a multi-storey building such as a hotel, office block or at home.

With a ban on charging in multi-storey buildings, a very significant part of the population in Klang Valley would be excluded from the benefit of owning an EV. Stats are a little hard to come by, but I estimate close to four-fifths of residents in Kuala Lumpur live in strata buildings, not landed housing. It is critical for the success of Malaysia’s electrification that we do not limit EVs only to the part of the population that live in landed houses.

The government is an effective enabler of electrification, with incentives such as the BEV Global Leaders initiative that welcomed Tesla to Malaysia. It has also done this by the continued effort to attract CKD manufacturing and by easing import duties, excise and road taxes and incentivising the building of charging infrastructure. Future changes to the subsidy structure on petrol may likewise propel EV adoption.

Meantime, the government must guard against initiatives that present significant obstacles to EV adoption and seek to find alternative ways to clear hurdles. Much learning can be had from countries that have already significantly increased their EV adoption to double digits without resorting to restrictions based on aspects like fire safety. In fact, countries like the United Kingdom have enacted laws to mandate that any new or renovated residential building must provide for charging of EVs for every resident. A coordinated effort is necessary to ensure that one initiative doesn’t undermine another and, in this regard, stakeholders such as the Malaysian Electric Vehicle Owners Club are keen to share input and act as sounding board on any initiative impacting EV adoption in Malaysia

The author is a recent convert to electrical mobility and drives a Tesla Model 3 which he happily and safely charges from his strata residency.

Allan H Jensen is head of Danfoss SEA-North, a leading global manufacturer of power electronics and HVAC solutions. He is also chairman of the Danish Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia.

Source: The Edge Markets