Electric vehicles – the way to go in Hong Kong?

7 December 2017

Dr Denis YU, Assistant Professor, School of Energy and Environment, City University of Hong Kong

PhotovoltaicsHong Kong has been electrified by its largest car racing event ever over the weekend – Formula E, which showcased 10 teams in this year’s first race of the third season. Spectators were greeted by 20 electric Formula E cars speeding through narrow streets in the Central Harbourfront. Added to the excitement is that the racing cars have barely enough electricity to last for half of the race, so drivers have to literally jump out of their cars and hop into another one in the middle of the race, and strategize on how to use the remaining energy to ensure they can complete the race. Another appeal of Formula E is the extremely fast acceleration of the car. This is because electric motors are designed to start spinning when a current is applied, unlike a combustion engine. Formula E cars in particular are much more demanding compared to EV for private use because of the big changes in speed along the track. It is a true test on the performance of the battery as well as the vehicle, and there are unchartered areas that will be important for future development of EVs.

Much applause should be given to the Hong Kong government for sponsoring the event, which has special meaning in terms of promoting clean transportation to combat environmental pollution. Electric vehicle is a growing trend in Hong Kong. Back in 2010, there were nearly no pure electric vehicles on the street of Hong Kong. Now, after 6 years, there are up to 6000 that are roaming the streets. The figure will surely go up with time, as Hong Kong, because of its size, is ideal for electric vehicles. Distance between the eastern and western-most points of Hong Kong Island is barely 10 km, and most drivers do not drive more than 50 km a day.

Tesla, in particularly, has been dominating the EV market in Hong Kong. You may wonder why? It is true that their key technology is in turning high-quality mass-produced lithium-ion batteries that are used in laptops into battery packs for EV. But one of winning strategies is that they dare to do what most car manufacturers do not dare – to make large and expensive batteries. The common perception by EV makers is that they should make EVs with smaller batteries to remain economically competitive with combustion engines because of the high price of lithium-ion battery. Though, the downside of a smaller battery is that the driving range is reduced. Most common EVs have driving ranges of around 150 km, which is technical sufficient for urban drive. Though, when the limit is low, drivers’ start to feel anxious even when there is still 50% energy left. Tesla does not care about these and goes for batteries that can last for example up to 400 km. So there is no need to charge the car every day. Branding is also an extremely important factor. If you are going to pay for a high-cost EV, you want one that looks luxurious. Tesla is excellent in this respect.

Promoting EVs in Hong Kong is not without issues. Hong Kong previously had a test run to use EV as eTaxi, but that programme was cut short after about 2 years’ operation. There need to be sufficient infrastructure to support the EVs. Charging is an important issue, as most drivers in Hong Kong do not have their own private garage. Many public car parks have installed charging stations, but so far, the rate of increase of charging stations has not keep pace with the increase in numbers of EVs. Hong Kong also has many older residential buildings that were designed with transformers based on electricity consumption patterns many years ago. They may or may not have large enough power to support EV charging. Fortunately, there are companies that are provide one-stop shopping to EV users to cut through the red tapes and help them install charging facilities at desired locations, and this is a big step forward.

EVs are great because they have zero emission during operation, and can significantly reduce road-side pollution. Though, the electricity that is used to run EVs has to come from somewhere. In Hong Kong, it is mainly from burning of fossil fuel. So there also needs to be parallel development in renewable energies in Hong Kong to make EV truly environmental friendly.

 

Dr. Denis Yu is an assistant professor at the School of Energy and Environment at City University of Hong Kong. Before he joined City University, he had spent 8 years working in the battery industry at Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. in Japan.