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#Climate Urgency, #Mobility

China Daily: Hong Kong is leaving no stone unturned in strengthening its status as a global metropolis and financial hub. It’s going the extra mile to enhance its standing, with greater efforts being made in areas like the transition to green public transportation, and high technology.

The city boasts a sophisticated and efficient public transportation system, and green transport is a key element in the special administrative region’s goal to attain carbon neutrality before 2050. But, only 7.4 percent, or 68,000, of the total number of vehicles registered so far are electrically powered. The number of new energy vehicles for commercial use is even lower. Less than 1 percent of over 6,000 franchised buses are electrically powered, with virtually no minibuses or taxis relying on green energy.

By comparison, neighboring Shenzhen has about 860,000 electric vehicles, including 16,000 buses and 21,000 taxis. In London, more than 11.2 percent of public buses are powered by electricity or hydrogen fuel cells. Colombia’s capital city Bogota operates a fleet of 1,485 electric public buses, leading Latin American cities in this respect.

Automobiles in the SAR generate 18 percent of the total greenhouse gases emitted. Without significant progress made in accelerating the green transition of vehicles, Hong Kong will face a huge challenge in attaining its net-zero emissions target before 2050, as well as its objective to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent annually by 2035.

To meet its 2035 target, Hong Kong needs to cut its annual carbon emissions by at least 1.67 percentage point every year. But, official data show that the reduction rate was only about one percentage point a year from 2005 to 2021.

Getting more vehicles to go green would immeasurably help the SAR’s decarbonization drive. Some progress has been made as the number of newly registered private electric vehicles has soared tenfold annually in the past four years. However, 150,000 buses, taxis, trucks and other commercial vehicles, which generate nearly 12 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in Hong Kong, are still awaiting clearer policies and painstaking work by the government and stakeholders to achieve a rapid green transition.

The SAR government spent HK$300 million ($38.48 million) in 2011 to create the Pilot Green Transport Fund to subsidize the public transportation sector in developing electric buses and taxis. But, there have been no significant changes in the market so far. The government blamed immature EV technologies for the sluggish progress, while bus manufacturers lack the motivation to produce electric double-decker buses, as only a few cities worldwide, including Hong Kong, have much demand for them.

Green dream rekindled

However, as EV technologies begin to make inroads into the market, with more electric double-decker buses in public use, franchised bus operators, including Kowloon Motor Bus and Citybus, have rekindled their hopes of going green. Since last year, KMB has procured electric single- and double-decker buses from Chinese mainland EV giant BYD, and British bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis — a major supplier of Hong Kong’s diesel buses. KMB now deploys its 82 electric buses on 10 routes.

According to Kan Hok-hei, KMB’s head of communications and public affairs, the company’s electric double-decker buses, equipped with BYD’s “blade battery” — a high-efficiency battery launched in 2020 — can run for about 300 kilometers after two hours of charging. KMB has also developed solar panels that can be installed atop buses to collect solar power. The energy stored can be converted to electricity to power electronic devices, such as the payment system, wireless network and air conditioners in buses. As a result, Hong Kong’s widespread use of air conditioners on public transport can be taken care of by solar energy, says Kan.

A solar power generation system, consisting of 16 to 20 panels, can provide adequate power for an electric bus to run 10 kilometers, or reduce fuel consumption by 5 percent daily for a diesel bus. The solar panels will be installed in more than 2,000 buses by next month.

KMB says its 4,000 buses will be electrically powered before 2040, while Citybus aims to build a zero-emission fleet, with a mixture of electric and hydrogen buses, before 2045.

Working with mainland-based carmaker Wisdom Motor, Citybus produced Hong Kong’s first hydrogen double-decker bus model last year. Hydrogen, as a fuel, emits only water vapor and heat as byproducts. Buses using hydrogen take three to five minutes to refuel, much faster than the recharging time for ordinary EVs.

“Hydrogen-powered buses can meet all of our requirements, including air conditioning, topography and the long operating range,” says Richard Hall, managing director of Citybus.

In an interview with China Daily, he says Citybus hopes to build an electric-hydrogen hybrid fleet because these types of buses have their own respective strengths. The bus operator will work with the government in a trial operation early next year to get a full comparison between electric and hydrogen-powered buses. “It’s not just about fuel costs. It’s about the costs of maintenance, upgrading depot infrastructure and many other factors involved,” says Hall.

Regulations, incentives vital

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu says in his 2023 Policy Address the government will publish a green transformation road map and timetable for public buses and taxis in the first half of next year. The Environment and Ecology Bureau will continue to test commercial EVs and associated facilities through various programs.

An Interdepartmental Working Group on Using Hydrogen as Fuel was set up last year. It has given the nod to several projects, including the refueling, transportation and utilization of hydrogen. A comprehensive strategy for using hydrogen will be unveiled next year. “We have to keep legislating, and setting a common standard is very important,” says Hall, adding that the transportation sector and vehicle manufacturers would have a clear direction to follow once the standards are in place.

Lawrence Iu Chun-yip, executive director of local think tank Civic Exchange, says some laws and regulations need to be reviewed to facilitate the application of new technologies. As a flammable and combustible material, hydrogen is classified as “dangerous material” under Hong Kong’s laws. Therefore, hydrogen-loaded vehicles are not allowed to use any of the city’s cross-harbor tunnels, thus impeding wider adoption of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Instead of ad hoc measures, Iu says he would like to see more flexible policies to allow new technologies to be deployed.

According to Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan, fiscal incentives may be offered to bus operators to purchase electric buses.

Kan says an electric bus costs about 30 percent more than a diesel vehicle, and more money would have to be spent on training technicians and installing chargers in public places. Hall notes that hydrogen energy is more expensive than diesel and electricity at present.

The green transition may also affect bus operators’ revenues. An electric bus would require more space for installing batteries, thus reducing seating capacity. KMB’s BYD B12D model can carry 115 passengers, while many popular diesel buses can accommodate up to 130 passengers.

Kan hopes the government will allow bus operators to increase their income from other sources, such as operating stores at bus stops. Tax incentives have proved to be effective. Buyers of non-commercial EV vehicles in Hong Kong are exempt from first registration tax. Data show that, from 2015 to 2021, HK$7.4 billion was saved in this way, while the licensing fee for private EVs is lower than that for vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Some cities on the mainland offer cash subsidies to EV purchasers. Hong Kong introduced a cash incentive program in the early 2000s to promote the use of liquefied petroleum gas taxis.

More chargers needed

The lack of charging facilities is another impediment to green transportation. Currently, the city has about 7,000 EV chargers for public use, enabling a charger to serve an average 9.7 EVs. A recent survey shows that 91.3 percent of those polled say the number of chargers in their neighborhood is inadequate.

The government aims to put 700 electric buses and 3,000 electric taxis on the roads by 2027. The dearth of EV chargers is apparent in view of the growing number of private electric cars and commercial EVs in use. At present, the government subsidizes private residential buildings and estates to install EV charging facilities. As of March this year, only 2,400 private parking spaces had started or completed installation work. The authorities hope to equip and subsidize 77,000 private parking places with charging facilities by 2025, and 140,000 by 2027 or 2028.

KMB envisages it having 850 charging facilities at its depots within five years, but this may meet only part of the growing demand as the company’s fleet of 4,000 buses goes electric.

According to Tse, some bus companies have proposed sharing charging facilities at their depots with other vehicles to boost the utilization rate and dilute installation costs.

Wong Cheuk-pong, chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi Council, says what taxi drivers need is a citywide network of charging stations. Fast-charging technology is essential as the city’s 18,000 taxis can’t afford to wait hours for recharging. The government aims to increase the number of rapid EV chargers from the current 1,000 to 1,400 by 2027, while encouraging petroleum fueling stations to add rapid-charging facilities.

Overall, the goal is to increase the number of public and private EV chargers to 150,000 by 2025, and to 200,000 by mid-2027. This would be a significant expansion of the existing charging network, but no project schedule has yet been set.

Concerted efforts ahead

Wong notes that infrastructure construction often takes years to complete, and the government should speed up its work. Apart from appropriate and clear policy guidance, the industry’s willingness to make changes, as well as a choice for consumers, are essential in the switch to green transportation.

From the first quarter of next year, minibus operators will begin tests on electric minibuses and charging facilities. Kerry Logistics says it will phase out all diesel trucks in a decade, while the Fire Services Department will launch its first electric mobile command unit in 2025.

Hong Kong can also follow other places in cultivating consumer habits. At a recent seminar on climate change held in the SAR, Hridbijoy Chakraborty, a consultant with the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, India, says the Indian capital has a fund to support policies associated with promoting electric vehicles.

The fund, which is not a direct government subsidy, provides incentives to EV users by taxing people who still use fossil-fuel vehicles.

 

Originally published on China Daily on 24 Nov 2023.

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