HK goes electric to drive out pollution

A tourist having her photo taken yesterday at Tsim Sha Tsui pier, where this giant banner depicting Hong Kong's skyline on a clear day has attracted many disappointed by cloudy or smog-choked skies.

SINGAPORE - The taxi purrs up the slope as cabby Sammy Ho Kam Lok steps on the gas - or rather, the electricity.

"I can go faster now. It's quieter too," says the 53-year-old of his new sedan painted the jaunty red of Hong Kong's cabs.

It is one of 14 new electric taxis now plying streets here, marking the start of what many hope will be a wave of electric vehicles that can help curb the city's pollution.

Just last week, Hong Kong was shrouded yet again in smog. Tourism officials put up a giant banner at the Tsim Sha Tsui pier of a clear city skyline, so visitors could take their holiday snaps against it.

A key culprit is road transport, especially belching lorries, buses and taxis. It makes up two-thirds of the carbon monoxide and a third of the nitrogen oxides here, says Ms Tiffany Leung of environment advocacy group Clean Air Network. Marine vessels and power generators also contribute.

"Electric vehicles will thus be significant in helping us deal with pollution," Ms Leung says.

There are now 482 such vehicles here, up from 74 in 2010.

They form a small fraction of the city's 658,000 vehicles, but plans are afoot to increase their usage.

The use of electric taxis might be "an experiment" for now, says Mr Charles Tran, the president of the Hong Kong Taxi & Public Light Bus Association, which rents them from China carmaker BYD. But it hopes to raise the number to 45 in coming months and eventually buy its own.

BYD is targeting 3,000 by 2015. Hong Kong has a fleet of more than 18,000 taxis, most of which run on LPG.

A trial to run electric buses will start at the end of next year, with the government funnelling HK$180 million (S$30 million) to bus firms to buy 36 such vehicles.

"The ultimate policy objective is to have zero-emission buses running across the territory," says a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department.

As an incentive for private-car owners - electric cars cost two or three times more than conventional ones - it waives the first registration tax, which is 40 to 115 per cent of the car's listed price.

The government will take the lead, adding 120 electric vehicles to its current 98 within the year.

But the drive to go electric is not without bumps.

Cost is one issue. For instance, repairs will be problematic and expensive after the warranty expires, says electrical engineering academic Eric Cheng of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"No technicians in Hong Kong are specifically trained in repairing electric vehicles," he notes.

Another is the lack of charging infrastructure, with just 1,000 points around the city. Canada mandates chargers in all new buildings.

Also, some drivers are daunted by perceived risks, especially after a charger at a carpark melted in June because of a faulty connection to the electricity grid.

Moreover, professional training in related fields has yet to catch up with the technology.

Says Dr Cheng: "If there's a crash, what should firemen do? Spray water or use powder? And the high-voltage electricity?"

Thus, the government must take even "more aggressive" steps on various fronts, say experts.

Professor Chan Ching Chuen of Hong Kong University says Shenzhen, where heavy subsidies make electric cars cheaper than conventional ones, has 4,300 out of an overall pool of two million.

Japan has more than 40,000 out of a pool of 74 million.

Still, Hong Kong is ahead of Singapore, which has just one privately registered electric car.

Hopefully, more Hong Kong motorists will jump on the bandwagon.

Mr Ho's new taxi has already received the thumbs-up from passengers.

"They say it is amazing!" he declares proudly.


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