Electrification of Transport: A Challenge in a Highly Urbanised Latin America

Por Mario Osava (IPS)

Iêda de Oliveira sits at the wheel of one of the buses manufactured by the company she heads, Eletra, a pioneer in electric and hybrid buses in Brazil. She regrets that Brazil, due to a lack of adequate public policies, has lost the foreign market for buses and part of the domestic market to China, after having been a major exporter of buses to Latin America and other regions. CREDIT: Courtesy of Eletra

HAVANA TIMES – Electric transport, still limited in Latin America despite its urban benefits, could expand during the post-pandemic economic recovery, says Adalberto Maluf, president of the Brazilian Association of Electric Vehicles (ABVE).

If there are major investments in the necessary reactivation of the economy, they should form part of “a transition towards a green economy, in an agenda for the future,” as some European countries have already decided, said Maluf, who is also director in Brazil of the Chinese company BYD, the world’s largest manufacturer of 100 percent electric vehicles.

“The transition to electric mobility powered by clean energy is beginning to generate growing interest among governments, and also among citizens,” notes the report “Electric Mobility 2019: Status and Opportunities for Regional Collaboration in Latin America and the Caribbean,” released in Spanish on Jul. 2 by UN Environment.

This is reflected in “the emergence of different civil society groups dedicated to this sector and made up of enthusiasts, early adopters and entrepreneurs,” according to the report, which points to a bigger push in public transport in the 20 countries studied.

In a region that has rapidly urbanised, with 80 percent of the population living in urban areas, and where the number of large cities has climbed, electric vehicles are improving the environment, transportation, quality of life and collective health, in addition to opening up new economic possibilities and generating jobs and technological innovations.

Transportation is responsible for 22 percent of the region’s emissions of short-lived climate pollutants and 15 percent of greenhouse gases, according to the report by the regional office of the agency also known as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The electrification of 100 percent of urban transport would prevent 180,117 deaths from 2019 to 2050 in Mexico City, 207,672 in Buenos Aires and 13,003 in Santiago, by eliminating the gases and particulate matter emitted by conventional vehicles, the report estimates.

The efficiency of electricity, far superior to that of fossil fuels in vehicles, offers a great economic advantage in the medium term.

A bus manufactured by BYD, a Chinese company founded in 1995 that soon became a powerhouse in the production of rechargeable batteries, electric buses and cars and solar panels. In Brazil, the firm set up shop in the city of Campinas, 100 kilometres from São Paulo. Its production is focused on clean energy and transport. CREDIT: Courtesy of BYD Brazil

The electric vehicle is more expensive because of the battery, which can cost nearly half of the total for a bus that can run 200 kilometers without recharging, said Iêda de Oliveira, executive director of Eletra, an electric bus company founded in 1988 in São Bernardo do Campo, near the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo.

The price difference, she told IPS from that city by phone, is recovered in a few years from savings in energy and maintenance, since electric motors have fewer parts and wear out less.

The economic advantages are accentuated in countries that, like Chile, depend on imported oil and therefore suffer the effects of international price swings and exchange rate fluctuations.

Chile stands out in the electrification of its urban transport. Santiago’s Metropolitan Mobility Network had 386 electric buses by the end of 2019. There will be almost 800 by the end of 2020. BYD (Build Your Dreams) is the largest supplier of electric buses in Chile, Maluf told IPS by telephone from São Paulo.

Furthermore, Chile has set a goal to electrify its entire public transport fleet and 40 percent of private transport by 2050, as part of the National Electromobility Strategy approved in 2016.

Colombia also stands out, with 483 electric buses in operation or on order in Bogotá and another 90 in the cities of Cali and Medellín as of late 2019. The national goal for 2030 is to have 600,000 electric vehicles of all types, according to the UNEP report.

The Dual Bus is an innovation developed by the Brazilian company Eletra, which has the advantage of adding more flexibility to the electric bus, which can operate in two configurations: as a hybrid or trolleybus (with electricity supplied by overhead wires) and hybrid or pure electric (battery). In the hybrid, the electricity is generated internally by a diesel engine. CREDIT: Courtesy of Eletra

Costa Rica and Panama are other countries in the region that have adopted national electric mobility plans. Argentina, Mexico and Paraguay are in the process of hammering out their own strategies.

Brazil, which could lead this process even as a manufacturer of electric vehicles, “lags behind” in electrification, said Maluf, adding that “BYD sold 1045 buses in Latin America in 2019, only four percent of which went to Brazil.”

“Chile is a case in point; it was already a major importer of conventional buses from the Brazilian industry,” said Oliveira, who leads ABVE’s Heavy Vehicle Group, in addition to heading Eletra. “Because of its shortsightedness, Brazil lost the Latin American market to China.

“We need a public policy on electric transport, which is not only an environmental but also an economic question, because Brazil could be a leader, given our large fleet, our national spare parts industry, and our national technology,” she said.

Clear goals, available financing, more favourable taxation that takes into account environmental, social and health benefits, incentives for local battery production and the expansion of recharging infrastructure should form part of this policy, Oliveira said.

Relying on imported batteries proved to be a trap. Suddenly they became outrageously expensive due to the 35 percent devaluation of the Brazilian currency, the real, this year, she pointed out.

In her view, the race for higher-capacity batteries is not the only path to take. Another option is to create more charging stations and use smaller batteries. “Expanding the infrastructure and using smaller batteries makes more sense, if you can charge them more often,” Oliveira said.

Adalberto Maluf, president of the Brazilian Association of Electric Vehicles and director of marketing and sustainability at BYD Brazil, a subsidiary of the Chinese company that is the world’s largest producer of electric buses and one of the largest makers of solar batteries and panels, hopes that public environmental and health awareness in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will drive the electrification of transportation, especially urban transport. CREDIT: Courtesy of Adalberto Maluf

Maluf asserted that claiming there are not enough charging stations to argue against increasing the number of electric vehicles in Brazil is no longer justified. There are at least two electric vehicle routes, one on the country’s busiest highway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and there are scattered charging stations elsewhere.

In addition, batteries can be charged quickly today, in half an hour, and in just 15 minutes 70 percent of capacity can be reached, he said.

Unfamiliarity with technology is the main factor curbing the spread of electromobility, Maluf said.

There is also resistance and political pressure from entrenched interests in the transportation industry, such as the traditional automotive industry, ethanol producers, fuel distributors and urban bus companies.

Nevertheless, electrification is progressing in different areas. Electric motorcycles, bicycles and scooters are mushrooming in cities that are adapting to new modalities.

Cargo transport is also gradually adhering to the new trend. The “retrofitting” of trucks to replace diesel engines with electric motors is Eletra’s new booming business.

In Brazil, hybrid electric vehicles predominate.

The UN Environment report recognises only 2045 electric vehicles registered in Brazil up to October 2019. But it only counts plug-in electric vehicles and excludes hybrids that run on an internal combustion engine and an electric motor that uses energy stored in batteries, which account for more than 90 percent of the electrified fleet.

ABVE statistics count a total of 30,092 electric vehicles registered from 2012 to June 2020. The number of vehicles registered rose threefold in 2019 from the previous year, to 11,858. Hybrids represented 95.4 percent of the total in 2018.

A diversity of options is the best route, given local needs and advantages, Oliveira argued. Adding a small battery to a trolleybus, for example, gives it flexibility that reduces the operating cost, she said.

New business models also promote solutions. Car-sharing, rental vehicles, electric generators, and associating energy distributors to urban transport are a few alternatives.

The Chilean model that separates the owner of the buses from their operators is interesting, as it attracts investment funds for the purchase of vehicles on a large scale, at lower costs, and facilitates solutions to conflicts, Maluf said.

One thought on “Electrification of Transport: A Challenge in a Highly Urbanised Latin America

  • One of the important questions regarding electric vehicles is how is the electricity produced?

    Mention of the trolleybus, reminds me that the City of Bradford in Yorkshire, England which is notorious for its steep hills, had a fleet of electric trolleybuses supplied through overhead wires, in the 1930s. But the electricity was produced in coal fired power stations.

    President Donald Trump’s opposition to wind generated electricity, reflects his commercial interest in his golf course on what was a bird reserve, north of Aberdeen, Scotland, where an offshore “farm” of windmills is being considered – if only they could hand a Black Lives Matter sign from them!

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