MANILA - The usage of electric vehicles in the Philippines has been growing since they were introduced in 2007, albeit slowly due to cost and the unavailability of key parts in the local market.
Yvonne Castro of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines is optimistic, however, there will be a boom in the industry because of support from the government and the growing consciousness about clean energy and climate change.
After the introduction of e-jeepneys five years ago, e-tricycles began plying some streets of the capital Manila and some other cities.
The country's first e-bus was launched a few months ago and early this month traffic constables in Manila were equipped with e-scooters.
According to Castro, the Philippines is leading among other Southeast Asian countries when it comes to actual usage of e-vehicles.
"The government is now more open and supportive," Castro told Kyodo News in a recent interview. "Hopefully, more business will come in so that the whole industry will be developed."
The use of e-vehicles in the Philippines is strongly encouraged by government to help reduce gasoline consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
The latest government records show there are more than 250,000 gasoline-powered public transport vehicles in the country, particularly buses and jeepneys, of which around 30 percent operate in Metro Manila.
Castro said that 150 e-jeepneys have been sold in the country since 2008 by one manufacturer, some of which are being used for hotel and resort services and other private establishments.
They are most visible though in the financial Makati district, ferrying shoppers and commuters.
E-tricycles that are currently operational, meanwhile, are estimated to be only a few dozen in number, most of them going around the Manila suburb Mandaluyong City for public transport, courtesy of the Asian Development Bank.
The ADB is providing a $300 million loan to the Philippine government for the delivery of 100,000 e-tricycles by 2016, aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, boosting drivers' income and stimulating the manufacture of e-vehicle motors locally.
According to the Philippine Energy department, gasoline consumption will be reduced by 561,000 barrels per year, avoiding 260,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually if 100,000 diesel tricycle units are replaced with e-tricycles.
The around 3.5 million motorcycles and tricycles in the country, according to government, emit close to 10 million tons of harmful gases and use more than $2 billion worth of imported oil each year.
The ADB said last year that its study revealed 80 percent of air pollution in Metro Manila comes from the transport sector.
Rex Rejano, a 27-year-old driver in Mandaluyong City who was assigned one of the 20 e-tricycles from the ADB last year for pilot testing, said not only does he enjoy a smoke- and noise-free ride now he also takes home a bigger income than when he was driving a regular tricycle.
The 30 percent rise in his income is due to the increased passenger capacity by at least 50 percent and the cheaper by 65 percent electric charging cost compared to fuel rates.
"This is a very good project. The e-tricycle is better because the passengers are safer and more comfortable, and they are twice in number compared to my former tricycle," Rejano said.
The energy department has tried to allay fears that e-vehicles will put additional burden on the electricity supply by saying that charging is done "during low peak hours or in the evenings, which contributes to higher utilization of available generation capacities."
It also plans to establish solar-powered charging stations, hoping to make carbon footprint of e-vehicles close to zero.
While she views the e-vehicle project as "a solution, in principle," Greenpeace Philippines' Anna Abad is wary that it will not "provide the transformational change" it aims to achieve "if it is plugged to conventional power source like coal."
"For a sustainable transport to be truly sustainable, it should be powered with renewable energy. The project would be better off if married with renewable energy," Abad said.
If the ADB-assisted project succeeds, the Philippines is expected to generate around 10,000 new jobs by 2015 since local manufacturing of the e-tricycles will begin.
It will even allow the country to export the product to its neighbors in the region at a cost of $4,000 to $5,000 each, generating foreign currency, the bank said.
Last month, Japanese e-vehicle manufacturer Terra Motors Corp. announced its plan to open a Philippine factory by 2015 as it also expressed interest in joining in the country's e-tricycle project.
Castro said that aside from the cost of e-vehicles, the absence of appropriate government regulations for their manufacture and operation is preventing the industry from flourishing.
An e-tricycle currently costs more than 200,000 pesos ($4,762), two or three times more than conventional tricycles.
An e-jeepney is worth more than $16,000, around 35 percent more expensive than a traditional jeepney.
And the e-bus is reportedly around $286,000.
"Our lawmakers should craft laws to make it easier to manufacture e-vehicles here, particularly e-jeepneys and e-tricycles. We are not looking at e-buses because we have no capacity for that," Castro said. "One encouragement is zero-tax for parts that will have to be imported. And the government should start working on franchise license regulations for these."
Castro said most of the parts for e-vehicles, especially the controller and the lithium battery, are now sourced from China.
She urged the government to initiate efforts for the training of local technical experts and recommended proper education for drivers because "these are high-tech vehicles."
Without proper training, Castro fears drivers might cause e-vehicles to malfunction sooner than projected.
She also acknowledged the need to include in the development plan the proper disposal of lithium batteries once they reach their end-life, noting there is no recycling facility for lithium batteries in the Philippines, unlike other countries that have a "second-life program and recycling facilities."
"(Still) with the government now giving attention to this industry, hopefully, it will keep us ahead in the region," Castro said.