IN THE DAYS just after the first MCO, when the clean air and clear skies that came with the lockdown started to fade and the air quality index climbed again, it seemed an appropriate moment for Malaysia to seriously consider joining the electric vehicle revolution. But as I did my research for this article, I began to understand why Malaysia has been slow to embrace electric vehicles.
Cars are not good for the environment. The most environmentally friendly car is the new car that you don’t buy. Building cars involves a significant carbon footprint. The mining and extraction of raw materials, the energy-intensive refining of those materials and the entire manufacturing process, all use energy that adds more greenhouse gases to the upper atmosphere, accelerating climate change.
But not all cars are created equal. An SUV obviously has a bigger carbon footprint than a smaller vehicle, not just from manufacturing, but from fuel consumption too. Electric cars have yet to make a real impact on the Malaysian market. There are many reasons for this. One obvious one is the price; electric vehicles are still considered a high-end prestige purchase. Another is infrastructure. According to Energy Watch,1 Malaysia has just 271 electric vehicle charging stations (with about 15 of them in Penang) compared to 3,291 petrol stations.2
A row of electric car chargers in South Korea.
It’s something of a chicken and egg situation. There needs to be a demand for charging stations if drivers are to be convinced to switch to electric vehicles. That said, compared to building a new petrol station, the technical difficulties of installing charging stations are minimal.
The electricity infrastructure already exists and current can be brought to any new charging station far more easily than the circuitous complications involved in the process of taking oil from the ground to eventually putting it in a car. As obstacles go, the issue of charging stations is easily surmountable. In fact, Petronas is installing a network of charging stations at its petrol stations that will enable the electric motorist to drive from Penang to Singapore without any range anxiety.3
A more substantial obstacle is fuel price. Malaysia’s petrol prices are among the cheapest on the planet, typically less than a third of what European motorists pay. As such, fuel efficiency is not always foremost in the Malaysian motorist’s mind, which goes some way towards explaining the unnecessarily outsized cars on our roads.
Obviously, the main reason petrol is so cheap is because Malaysia produces oil, as do the handful of countries where petrol is even cheaper than in Malaysia. Given the economic importance of oil production, it inevitably has an impact on government policies. Decreased global demand in 2020, due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic and in part to the increase of renewable energy, has further served to keep petrol prices low.
Where petrol prices are higher, motorists consider alternatives, including public transport, which environmentally speaking is one of the best options, if not always the most practical. But increasingly people are moving away from petrol-driven cars, with half a million electric cars purchased in Europe in 2020 – and this in a year that has been considered economically slow.4
While there are some efficient public transport networks in Malaysia, the Klang Valley’s LRT and monorail networks, or the recently added world-class Electric Train Service (ETS) for example, they are nowhere near adequate or even close to replacing cars as the transport method of preference for most Malaysians.
With the pervasive mindset being that environmental factors are only of secondary importance at best, Malaysian motorists will be reluctant to go electric in any big way in the immediate future.
The early days of the Covid-19 crisis might have given us a greater appreciation for clean air, but the pandemic certainly hasn’t done anything to make public transport more attractive. The safe cocoon of a private vehicle offers a level of security that a bus or train cannot provide, no matter how stringently SOPs are applied.
One downside of electric vehicles is the carbon emissions involved in the manufacture, mostly due to the lithium-ion batteries used. A full third of the carbon emissions produced in the lifespan of an electric vehicle occur before the car even reaches the driver, whereas for conventional cars that figure is around a quarter.5
A common criticism of electric vehicles is that they are only as clean as the fuel used to generate electricity. But this is only partially true, as the real impact has to be measured from well-to-wheel. There are economies of scale and efficiency when mass producing electricity, even with the most polluting fuels, that still outweigh the impacts of fueling cars with petrol. Interestingly, despite an increase in electricity use during the lockdown we saw air quality improve. Counterintuitively, it seems that we can have “dirty” electricity and cleaner air, on the rather far-fetched condition that the number of petrol-driven vehicles on the road remains as low as during the first MCO.
But for electric cars to be maximally environmentally friendly the source of energy production does indeed play a significant role. In 2019 gas-fired power dominated Malaysia’s power portfolio, with a share of 43% of total capacity. Coal and oil followed with 30.4% and 5.9% respectively, while hydropower provided 17.2%. Other renewables accounted for less than 4%.6
To fully justify an overhaul of Malaysia’s automotive industry, as well as to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, Malaysia needs to significantly update its energy mix. Though Malaysia is one of the world’s largest producers of photovoltaic solar panels, most of these are produced for export, with solar making only a tiny contribution to the country’s energy needs. Meanwhile, fossil fuel use in Malaysia is at its highest levels ever.7
The good news is that energy production does not have to be entirely overhauled before electric vehicles can flourish. Both can happen in parallel. Even better news is that more and more affordable electric vehicles are being built, including electric motorcycles, already available in Penang.8 There are also interesting innovations in renewable energy, for example with Singapore planning to import solar-generated electricity from Australia.9 Technically Malaysia can do likewise and import electricity from Australia instead of climate-changing coal, or even generate its own solar-powered electricity.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s car manufacturing industry is a non-negligible contributor to the country’s high rates of car ownership and usage, with the commensurate environmental impacts. Additionally, what has historically been somewhat haphazard town-planning means that many places, whether commercial or residential, are only practicably accessible by car.
For better or for worse – probably the latter – cars will likely remain Malaysia’s favoured method of transport, followed by motorcycles. With the pervasive mindset being that environmental factors are only of secondary importance at best, Malaysian motorists will be reluctant to go electric in any big way in the immediate future.
But as the clock of climate change ticks ever louder, we can expect electric vehicles to be cheaper and more efficient, meaning Malaysia could leapfrog technology in a way analogous to how many rural communities now use mobile phones without ever having had landlines.
When electric motorcycles and driverless ride-hailing cars ply the roads, the clear air will return. It might not happen soon, but it will happen.