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How can Cambodia grasp the full potential of electric vehicles?

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Transport minister Sun Chanthol gets behind the wheel of an EV during the inauguration of an EV charging station in Phnom Penh. MPWT

How can Cambodia grasp the full potential of electric vehicles?

Imagine a future free from the noise and billowing exhaust of combustion engines. In this future, the gentle hum of electric motors fills streets across Cambodia. Buses, cars, and motorcycles steadily and quietly circulate, the streets are tranquil, and the air is clean. It’s a welcome change for pedestrians, residents and motorists alike. This is the potential future promised by electric vehicles (EV).

It is a vision that the Cambodian government appears to be interested in making a reality. In November of 2021, Cambodia became a signatory of the COP26 declaration on transitioning to 100 per cent zero emission vehicles, and striving to eliminate fossil fuel-based vehicles by 2040. Interest in transitioning to these types of vehicles has also been growing in the private sector.

While there is interest in bringing this future to Cambodia, the path to get there is far from obvious. If Cambodia wishes to leap-frog into an EV dominant future, several less obvious but crucial policy developments must occur. Luckily, the Kingdom can learn from the experience and frameworks pioneered by early adopting countries.

Expanding charging station network

The development of infrastructure for EVs across the country is paramount. Charging stations are a crucial link in an EV ecosystem, and should be prioritised as a nationwide, government-led infrastructure project.

The Ministry of Public Works and Transport is actively pursuing such goals in cooperation with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Green Growth Institute. They are looking to build and operate five charging stations across Cambodia in the capital, Siem Reap, Battambang and Preah Sihanouk provinces as a pilot programme.

But it will take more than five charging stations to support a fully EV-capable network. A more comprehensive plan to roll out charging stations across the nation must be studied and implemented. Otherwise EVs will not be a nation-spanning transportation option, but will be relegated to an intra-city novelty.

For this particular effort, Cambodia has favourable geography to its advantage. The distances between cities and provincial towns is significantly less in Cambodia than in other countries like the US, which faces issues with rolling out charging stations due to how sparsely populated some of its regions are.

Partnerships with traditional energy companies (such as petrol suppliers) should also be explored, since the pre-existing stations can be modified to charge EV as well. Thus, preventing their obsolescence while also streamlining the expansion process across the nation.

In China, the city of Nanjing is piloting such a conversion programme. The national petroleum company, PetroChina, is collaborating with CATL, a battery manufacturer, to convert existing gas stations into EV charging stations. Instead of relying on power from the national grid, CATL developed an on-site, methanol based power generation and storage system which is relatively cleaner than diesel or gasoline generators. The choice to use methanol, a petroleum by-product, also helps the gas company to transition into electrical charging while maintaining a part of the fossil-fuel business.

Thus, a nationwide effort to build charging stations should be planned and led by the government and strategic partnership formed wherever possible.

Choosing the right plug

But charging station locations aren’t the only critical infrastructure-related decision that Cambodia will have to make. The biggest decision may actually come down to the smallest piece of equipment – the EV plug. And there are a number of competing designs to be examined.

Europe had standardised a common design , the type 2 CCS connector. In Asia, mainly Japanese car companies, pioneered usage of the CHAdeMO plug. However, China – being the largest single user of EVs – standardised a native design called a GB/T plug and is currently the only one in use there.

Although the Type 1 plug is the most common design, the US has not standardised any design. Naturally, EV users there face a complex environment trying to match their EV’s with the correct plug, which could be the US’ preferred Type 1, or Asian CHAdeMO or even a European Type 2.

Moreover, Tesla has its own plug design which excludes other EVs from using Tesla’s charging ports, but adaptors are available for its own user to allow compatibility with other charging standards.

Given the demise of Cambodia’s homegrown EV, the Kingdom will be relying on imported EVs from a myriad of manufacturers. Thus, it is crucial that Cambodia adopt and standardise a single plug design.

European manufacturers like Jaguar and MG, using the Type 2 CCS, are already showcasing products for the Cambodian market. Tesla opted for the GB/T version of its models to be sold in Cambodia. And it is likely that as Chinese EVs penetrate the Cambodian market, they will also bring their GB/T standard as well.

In choosing a single standard, the GB/T design seems like the best option for Cambodia. Due to asian models of European and US brands already adopting the standard, not to mention the prevalence of Chinese models which will most likely be equipped with the GB/T standard as well.

Thinking two steps ahead

Lastly, if Cambodia wants to be fully prepared for widespread EV adoption, the country must also consider how to deal with the waste these vehicles create. Without adequate forethought, the environmental hazard posed by spent EV batteries threatens to taint their wider adoption.

China is home to the largest share of EVs globally and contended with 200,000 tonnes of battery waste in 2020 alone. Consequently, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology formulated a policy framework to deal with EV battery waste in 2018, based on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR.

The goal of EPR is to push recycling responsibility back to battery makers and EV manufacturers, thus incentifying them to standardardise the technical aspect of batteries. This helps to simplify the recycling method and facilitate ease of scaling such efforts.

Under this scheme, Chinese battery producers must standardise their batteries and provide details and assistance for their safe dismantlement. With this support, EV makers will set up their own waste battery collection and recycling networks.

Cambodia should adopt a similar EPR approach, and formulate a nationwide framework to collect and recycle spent batteries. The Kingdom’s EV importers should be given the responsibility to set up an after-sale EV service to replace and safely dismantle EV batteries. Additionally, third parties companies which specialise in recycling battery wastes could also be invited or locally started, forming a new sector dealing with e-waste.

There is already urgency and an opportunity for Cambodia to kick-start an e-waste recycling sector. The country is facing the retirement of its first generation hybrid cars, an extremely popular segment in Cambodia’s car market, and will have to contend with their batteries when these cars must be scrapped. Thus, its e-waste sector can use this early opportunity to gain experience and reach eventual maturity.

One potential solution Cambodia would do well to explore is to use those batteries in electrical grid storage units. In this form, they remain useful and extend their life which reduces the need and frequency of recycling.

B2U, a grid storage facility in the US state of California, re-uses batteries from Nissan Leaf EVs to store power during low demand and sell them back during peak hours. The low acquisition cost of old EV batteries and the simple business model meant that the venture is profitable and has received interest and additional investment.

This clever solution also meshes well with Cambodia’s agenda to move to renewable energy sources. Which is a requirement if EVs are to be truly carbon neutral, as demanded by the COP26 agreement.

Conclusion

Although an idyllic future where EVs make possible a clean and tranquil environment is enticing, the reality of an EV-dominated environment presents its own challenges.

And as Cambodia navigates this electrified frontier, the government, business community and other stakeholders would do well to consider the lessons that can be learned from other countries and avoid some of the pitfalls which were harshly learnt.

To make EV a truly sustainable alternative, Cambodia must go beyond commonly held policy assumptions and explore policies to initiate, sustain and recycle. Only through careful management and planning can the Kingdom avoid replacing one source of pollution with another.

Aronsakda Ses is a junior researcher from Future Forum Cambodia.

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