A conversation with GettingAhead – Zero-emission buses, how to work on it without the charging facilities?

(Hong Kong people have been exposed to high levels of air pollution for a long time. We are exposed to toxic air every day and it is affecting our health. While many other cities around the world have set clear zero-emission targets and adopt zero-emission buses on a large scale, Hong Kong is far behind. In this article, Clean Air Network invites experts, scholars and doctors who are concerned about air pollution and sustainable transportation development to find the crux of the problem and discuss how Hong Kong buses can “get ahead” to achieve zero-emission.)


Speaking of electric buses, you probably have heard it or seen it before, but you may not have been on one. This is because electric buses only account for 0.5% among the 6000 buses in Hong Kong, and there are very few driving routes.


In 2010, the Government announced that its policy objective was to have ultimately only zero-emission buses running in the territory and then launched a pilot program to fully subsidize the bus companies to purchase 36 single-deck electric buses. However such goal is never fully achieved, 10 years later, we still do not see any follow up projects of the zero-emission buses.


“The government must be determined when introducing such policy, it also motivates the industry to move forward” quoted from Prof. Hung, a former PolyU associate professor who specializes in the electrification of public buses.


With the increasing rate of public transport patronage, air pollution is now everywhere, found in both urban and suburban areas


Since there are so many public transportation options, why should the government focus on public buses?


Prof. Hung pointed out that the daily number of public transport users exceeds 12 million, and franchised buses account for 4 million (Note 1), which is a very high proportion. Pollutant emissions from the buses continue to affect public health, whether a passenger is on the bus or off the bus. Even though the current government has designated low-emission zones in Central, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok, and only allows buses of Euro V or above to run, the air quality is still not ideal. During the COVID19 outbreak in March, Clean Air Network measured the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Central, it is found that the Landmark bus station (originally located in the low-emission zone) has the highest concentration of NO2. On the other hand, some passengers are exposed to toxic air when travelling via buses since the suburban bus route is still adopting the old diesel bus.


To bus companies, Euro VI diesel buses are already a more environmentally friendly fuel-saving option. It is almost impossible to change the business model and introduce new energy at the risk of reducing profits. The government must act as the driving force so that the bus companies can see the benefits of adopting zero-emission buses. As long as they have sufficient fleets and charging facilities, they can adopt electric buses to save the operating costs.



Bus companies rely too much on the vehicle purchase subsidies from the government


“The government must take risks, they can’t expect the company to do it themselves,” said Prof. Hung.


While the fuel prices fluctuate, surcharges remain high, and electricity prices are relatively stable, it is more cost-effective for bus companies to operate zero-emission buses in the long run. Even though it requires a larger investment at the beginning. He suggested that the government should grant subsidies at the beginning of the campaign, and this can provide incentives for the bus companies switching to electric buses. It is encouraged that we first choose one or two routes that are easier to implement such changes, then to gradually switch all routes to electric buses. The single-deck buses, for example, there are many vehicle options in Europe and the Mainland. Moving on to the next phase, the government can subsidize the bus companies to purchase vehicles by providing a full or differential grant, also to make them purchase an additional 10% of vehicles as backup support. In this case, the bus companies do not need to do additional investment on the backup buses. At the same time, this can ensure their service remains professional. The above policy mirrors policies initiating in the Mainland and till today, Shenzhen has already achieved full electrification of buses.


It is not only environmentally related but also economically related


The charging facilities should partner with the power company to allow the buses charged overnight. The development of zero-emission buses will not only improve the environment but also benefit the operation of bus companies and power companies. This is a win-win situation for all parties, while the operation cost is cheaper and bus fees should remain the same.


In the long run, the government has to allocate extra land for the establishment of charging facilities. However, it is challenging to be done considering there are limited lands in Hong Kong. “The government owns all lands in Hong Kong, they should, therefore, be the one who initiates the project…”, said Prof. Hung.


We expect the government to execute the plans in reality


As promised in the Budget, the government would formulate Hong Kong’s first roadmap on the use of electric vehicles and the plan is expected to be launched in the first quarter of next year. Besides providing more charging facilities, Prof. Hung hopes the government will provide actual figures on how many electric vehicles it plans to purchase. Patrick Fung, Chief Executive Officer of Clean Air Network, believes that the roadmap should indicate the exact amount of annual funding. Also, policies on charging facilities and subsidies should be introduced alongside. And finally, a steering committee should be formed and supported by the Environment Bureau to monitor the progress of implementing zero-emission buses.


Clean Air Network conducted an online survey earlier and interviewed more than 400 citizens. Results show that nearly 80% of respondents support the implementation of zero-emission buses. This proves that citizens have great expectations for environmentally friendly buses. The last batch of Euro 5 diesel buses will be retired in 2036 and diesel buses will eventually be phased out. What are to expect for the transitions in the next 16 years? And can the government propose a clear timetable accordingly? These questions are yet to be answered.


Patrick Fung, Chief Executive Officer of Clean Air Network (left)
Prof. Hung, ​Former Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University​ (right)



Q&A: Is the battery life sufficient for the bus journey?


The battery life of electric buses is often doubted. Prof. Hung explained that as long as there are appropriate facilities, the charging issues should not be a problem. For example, if the bus is fully charged at night, it can run for 3 cycles, and it only needs to be recharged once in order to run for a full course. The charging issue here is not as problematic as it seems.


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