Electric Vehicles in the Philippines: A Mottled Green Solution

person charging a red EV
Eco-Business
,
Manila, Philippines

Electric Vehicles in the Philippines: A Mottled Green Solution

Joel Macatula, a 45-year-old doctor, has always had a fascination with renewable energy. He had solar panels installed in his home seven years ago which made him see for himself how environmental it was to harvest energy from the sun. At the same time, he was surprised at how he was able to slash his power bill by more than half, despite Filipinos paying the second-highest electricity prices in Asia. 

Chinese electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing company, Build Your Dream or BYD, launched the first fully-electric passenger car in the Philippines in 2018, retailing for US$80,000. Macatula waited until last year to make his purchase as more EVs were brought in the country, reducing the price of the BYD SONG model he was eyeing to US$60,000. A high price in a country where the average income is US$10,700 per year. 

“Free and clean fuel is what really pushed me to buy an EV. My professional practice requires me to travel 100 to 200 kilometers per day since the clinics and hospitals I work in are far from my home. It just made sense to invest in an EV,” says Macatula, who regularly travels from Metro Manila, one of the most congested and polluted cities in Southeast Asia to Laguna province, about 100 kilometers south of the city center.

graphical illustration of emissions
Source: National Center for Transportation Studies, University of the Philippines.

Macatula represents 93% of the 300 Filipino customers surveyed in 2018 who said that they would consider buying an electric car if it was powered by renewable energy, in a bid to improve air quality in Philippine cities. This was the highest figure in Southeast Asia in an analysis conducted by American research firm Frost & Sullivan.

The University of the Philippines’ National Centre for Transportation Studies (NCTS), which conducts research on transport issues and trends, notes that without drastic policy change, such as the mass rollout of EVs to slash carbon emissions, the Philippines will not achieve its targets by 2050. 

The country pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 75% from 2020 to 2030, targeting a 10% increase in the penetration rate of electric vehicles by 2040 to help it reach this goal, according to a research paper by Eco-Business.

The 2014 NCTS analysis titled "Long-term strategies for low-carbon transport systems in the Philippines" estimates a failure to reach carbon goals will result in a US$12.22 billion (P611 billion) loss by 2050 due to pulmonary and heart diseases, premature deaths and sick leave from fossil fuel-generated air pollution. 

A commitment to a more aggressive but realistic implementation of policies, may reduce air pollution costs to US$6.36 billion (P318 billion) thirty years from now. (See illustration above)

Incentives to reduce travel using work-from-home schemes, encouraging commuters to change modes of transport from low capacity vehicles like private cars to higher capacity bus and rail systems, along with EV mass supply and promotion, are some viable policies that could help drive down pollution, according to Jose Regin Regidor, research fellow and lead author of the NCTS report. 

But with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic today, these policies have been fast-tracked, making the NCTS hopeful that it will reduce the impacts from air pollution, says Regidor, who is also a professor at the Institute of Civil Engineering at the state university. 

“While the current pandemic showed us that it is possible to have significant reductions in air pollution in the form of vehicle emissions, it also brings opportunities for EVs particularly for public transport including tricycles and jeepneys," Regidor tells Eco-Business.  

Some Asian countries have already planned bans on petrol and diesel cars in favor of electric vehicles, such as China, India, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea. In March, Singapore declared its phase out of diesel cars and taxis in favor of “cleaner” fuels by 2025, followed by decarbonization announcements from ride-hailing and delivery apps Grab and Gojek. 

In the Philippines, EVs are starting to gain traction. From 2010 to 2019, there were 11,950 EVs registered with the Land Transportation Office and as of December 2018, 19 charging stations, based on figures shared with Eco-Business by the energy utilization management bureau of the department of energy.

The bulk of EVs in the country are e-tricycles and e-motorcycles, used to transport passengers over short distances, followed by electric utility vehicles like e-jeepneys or modern versions of the country’s iconic mode of public transport, as the government launched a public utility vehicle modernization plan four years ago. 

There are 309 fully electric and hybrid private automobiles afforded by an elite few, but this number is predicted to rise once the proposed bill on EVs is signed into law, aiming to provide tax incentives to ramp up the development of the industry. This would also bring down the cost allowing more to buy, what is currently, an out-of-reach asset for most. 

Driven by legislation and changing consumer sentiment amid a pandemic, the gradual phasing out of conventional vehicles removes one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions from the global energy system.

However, human rights and environmental issues loom large over the production of electric vehicles, which use key components heavily reliant on the mining of precious metals. 

Colourful e-jeepneys plyng the central business district of Makati City. E-jeepneys were first introduced in the country by non-governmental organisation Institute of Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) in 2007. Image: Ang Galing Mo!
Colorful e-jeepneys plying the central business district of Makati City. E-jeepneys were first introduced in the country by non-governmental organization Institute of Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) in 2007 / Credit: Ang Galing Mo!

Casting doubts on green credentials

When evaluated on direct emissions, EVs are more eco-friendly than conventional gasoline-powered vehicles since they run on electricity and do not emit air or noise pollution. But the eco-friendliness of an EV has to take into consideration the “well to wheel emissions”, which includes greenhouse gas and air pollutants that are released to produce and distribute the energy being used to power the car during its life cycle, says a carbon emissions expert. 

“In the Philippines, EVs will be charged using electricity from the national grid. The generation mix in the electricity grid will determine real emissions associated with that car,” says Fergal Mee, director of greenhouse gas services in London-based consultancy Carbon Action.

The Philippines is largely reliant on fossil fuels to generate power undermining the green credentials of the electric car Coal—the single biggest source of global warming—currently represents 52% of the Philippines’ power mix, followed by renewable energy at about 22% and natural gas at about 21%. 

“In countries like Sweden or Norway, most electricity comes from hydropower from their dams. Operating EVs is a good idea in countries which source their electricity from clean power, but a bad idea in any country which has a high fossil fuel mix in power generation,” he says. 

Even EV’s that are manufactured in the most renewable energy-dependent countries will be exported to and charged in countries that still burn fossil fuels for power. The Philippines’ high grid factor, or the average emissions from each power station in the electrical grid, limits the environmental benefits of EVs in the archipelago, Mee says.  

Emissions also accumulate from the manufacturer’s exportation of battery parts and shipping of the EV to the Philippines. Most EV batteries are manufactured in China, Thailand, Germany, and Poland—countries that run on non-renewable sources of electricity. 

graphical illustration of emissions
EVs release half the emissions of traditional cars. Even though EVs are pollutive in their manufacturing phase with their benefits curtailed if reliant on dirty energy to power them, the lifecycle emissions for EVs are still half of those of conventional cars / Credit: IEA, Image: Philip Amiote, Eco-Business.
 

Paris-based intergovernmental organization International Energy Agency (IEA) argues that even though EVs are pollutive in their manufacturing phase with their benefits curtailed if reliant on dirty energy to power them, the lifecycle emissions for EVs are still lower than those of conventional cars. (See illustration above)

Over its lifetime, a conventional car with an internal combustion engine will still spew over 40t CO2/person/year whereas a battery-operated vehicles will release half that, according to an IEA report titled The role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions published in May. 

However, EVs still have a larger carbon footprint in its manufacturing phase, requiring around six times more minerals than a conventional vehicle. The majority of EVs use lithium-ion batteries, which rely on a combination of copper, nickel, lithium, manganese and cobalt. The rapid rise of EVs will quadruple demand for these minerals by 2040, the IEA states. 

The IEA analysis shows that electric cars need about 53.2 kilograms (kg) of copper for its batteries, windings and copper rotors used in electric motors, wiring, busbars and charging infrastructure, compared to a gasoline-fired vehicle which only uses 22.3 kg of copper mainly for wiring. An electric-driven vehicle also needs 24.5 kg of manganese to produce batteries, while only 11.2 kg is used by conventional automobiles. 

Due to the boom of the EV industry and lithium applications in electronic devices, volume for lithium is expected to soar the most of all minerals critical in the transition to low-carbon technologies. It is slated to rise 51 times more than today’s levels by 2040, while cobalt volume is seen to grow 30 times higher over the same period, according to the IEA study. 

However, Carbon Trust’s Mee asserts that more worrying than the environmental aspect of EV batteries production is the human rights violations associated with mining these metals. 

“If Western or even Philippine consumers realize and fully appreciate what really goes into EVs, no one with any ethical fiber in their being would operate one. People have to consider the car’s entire life cycle before they purchase one,” he says.

Powering human rights allegations

The Philippines imports almost all of its EVs from China, which is the world’s biggest consumer of lithium, sourcing the majority of it from brine flats in South America, while controlling most of the global cobalt supply in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International first thrust the dark side of mining for car battery minerals into the spotlight in 2016 with an investigation into the child labour-plagued cobalt mines in the DRC, home to 70% of global cobalt reserves. 

Lithium mining companies have been blamed not just for droughts, with almost two million liters of water needed to produce one ton of lithium for a battery grade EV, but also soil contamination from mining activities, displacing Indigenous communities in South America. 

graphical illustration of emissions
Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre / Credit: Philip Amiote, Eco-Business.

These vital battery minerals have some of the poorest human rights records collected in February by a tracking tool which records the human rights violations linked to the extraction of key commodities vital to the clean energy transition, like EVs, wind turbines and solar panels. Companies responsible for a majority of global production of each of these minerals are monitored across 47 indicators drawn from the salient risks in the sector, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGP). 

Built by international non-governmental organization Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the tracking tool found that only one of the six biggest lithium mining companies in the world has a publicly available human rights policy. All firms have a total of 35 human rights or environmental degradation complaints from 2016 to 2019. 

The tracker recorded 54 allegations of human rights abuses among all cobalt mining firms in the DRC from 2014 to 2020, mostly related to corruption among political figures and armed groups believed to be exploiting artisanal miners, as well as reports of child labor and deaths. 

The emergence of "ethical batteries"

Reeling from the controversy of ethical issues in the supply chain of EV batteries, responsible sourcing campaigns specifically focused on batteries have started to take shape.

In March 2019, Amnesty International launched its ethical battery campaign, challenging EV leaders to produce the world’s first completely ethical battery in five years’ time. Germany-funded Vulcan Energy hopes to mine “zero carbon lithium” by using geothermal power; American EV manufacturer Tesla has implemented a blockchain enabled traceability tool for cobalt; while BMW, Daimler, Renault, and South Korean battery maker ​​Samsung SDI have made public their supply chain data. 

Additionally, EV battery development is already veering towards reducing cobalt and lithium and shifting to more abundant minerals like zinc, and solid-state batteries, notes Jose Bienvenido Biona, director of the Centre for Engineering and Sustainable Development Research at the De La Salle University in the Philippines.

Solid-state and zinc-ion batteries are considered safer than lithium-ion because they use a water-based chemistry that results in the inability for fires to physically occur. They are also cheaper, lighter, have more energy density, offer more range, and recharge faster.

The Philippines’ department of science and technology (DOST) is doing research to develop alternative battery chemistries. 

“It’s more of the economics and competition that’s driving new battery chemistries rather than greenhouse gas emissions or human rights allegations. As China controls minerals for the current battery technology, there is rapid development of other battery chemistries by other EV manufacturers in Europe and Japan,” says Biona. 

Big battery manufacturers require a high volume of demand before they agree to supply a market. It will take the emerging EV industry in the Philippines a “long time” to generate the market needed to sustain large battery producers, leading the country to try and create its own batteries, says Biona, also executive director of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines (EVAP), an industry group that partners with government to support electric vehicles in the country. 

DOST is working on developing an advanced lithium battery with high cycle life, which does not need to be replaced over the lifetime of the vehicle. Most EV’s in the Philippines only have lithium-ion batteries with low cycle life that need to be replaced after two to three years.

Biona hopes that the Philippines will begin producing its own batteries in five years and become self-sufficient, producing at least 50% of its supply needs. 

“Other countries realize now that for them to compete against China, they have to speed up their battery development," he says.

tricycles in a line

Filipino-made electric tricycles are turned over to the local government of Valenzuela City on October 2019 / Credit: BEMAC.

Buying local

Despite dire warnings of environmental risks and human rights abuses in its supply chain, EVs are winning support in the Philippines. 

The EVAP forecasts the country’s EV market to grow by 8 to 12% annually this decade, which is anticipated  to generate US$33.6 million in revenue services and sales of 200,000 units by 2024. 

The Electric Vehicles and Charging Stations Act of 2018, which proposes a national policy for the use of electric and hybrid vehicles and the establishment of electronic charging stations in the country, is poised for early approval with the promise of transforming the local automobile sector. 

As such, the Philippine EV industry should begin localizing as many of the parts needed in EV manufacturing even in its nascent stage, says Biona. 

aerial image of technopark
Laguna Technopark in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, one of the first industrial parks in the Philippines, provides building and warehouse space for small and medium companies in Asia / Credit: Laguna Technopark.

 

“You get positive cost and benefit if a certain percentage of the vehicles have local content. If the Philippines only assembles the EVs but buys major components like batteries and motors from outside, the jobs ratio and added value to the economy will be very small,” he says.  

Filipino electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies in export processing zones in Clark, Pampanga and Sta Rosa, Laguna currently produce motors, battery packs, and battery management systems for EV clients abroad, reveals Biona. 

He says the EV industry along with the department of trade and industry is proposing to EMS companies for part of the products exported to be made accessible to local consumers.

“We feel that is the fastest way to make EV parts available in the country, instead of creating an entirely new product just for the local market. It’s not a matter of capability. It’s a matter of having the size of the market and the possibility of selling part of their exports to the local EV industry,” he says. 

Aside from EV parts, there are EV technologies present and being utilized in the country that could be exploited and upgraded, suggests research by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies released in April. Filipino EV manufacturers such as BEMAC, PhUV, PinoyAko Corporation, Star, ToJo Motors have been producing e-trikes and e-jeepneys showing there is existing capability in EV product development and manufacture in local shores.

Giving batteries a second lease of life

An extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulation to make EV companies responsible for the collection and disposal of their batteries after they’ve been used would help reduce waste and create a market for their reuse or recyclability instead of falling into landfill, says Biona.

He urges the local development of standards for battery recycling, citing a potential market for it. Globally, there are only two companies which have the capability to recycle lithium to other batteries: US-based Retrieve Technologies and Belgium-headquartered Umicore.

production line at a  factory
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), powered by residual lithium from EV batteries, deliver parts to workers in a car factory / Credit: Nissan.

 

Nissan Motors, which launched its full-battery EV in the Philippines in May, does not recycle but at least reuses its EV batteries to power automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or robotic mail carriers that deliver parts to workers in its factories. The residual lithium in used batteries may not be powerful enough to run a car, but are enough to move a machine that assists in searching for components so that human factory workers can focus on installing car parts. 

The Japanese automobile giant has deployed its used EV batteries to provide electricity to communities in the aftermath of natural disasters. The company trialed using vehicle-to-grid technology to funnel power back in to the Australian grid as part of a pilot last year. 

The firm hopes to provide the same service in the after-life of EV batteries of its foreign importers, including those in the Philippines but cautions that it will “require collaboration between automotive companies, governments and electricity generating authorities as well as consumers to bring the vision to life together, with real actions.”

Prioritizing a shift to electric for public transportation 

Multi-lateral lender Asian Development Bank (ADB) says emerging economies in the region like the Philippines can prioritize the electric shift of public transport over private passenger vehicles because it would have a much larger impact on emissions and reducing pollution due to high mileage and, in the case of buses and trucks, due to high  energy consumption.

“Most countries already have low tax levels for all types of commercial vehicles, such as buses, trucks or taxis, and therefore EVs do not profit much—in contrast to private cars. Other policies are therefore required to stimulate  commercial EVs, including compensation for their impact on air pollution and noise, preferential access to urban centers, preferential licensing (for taxis), or obligations to operate a certain share of EVs (for buses), which can be gradually increased,” reads an ADB report titled E-Mobility Options for ADB Developing Member Countries

ADB has supported a project that aimed to replace 100,000 gasoline-burning tricycles in the Philippines with clean, energy-efficient electric tricycles by 2017, but this was canceled because local government units were not buying into the program. 

red train
An artist's rendition of the 53.1 km Malolos–Clark railway / Credit: Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Instead, the Manila-based development bank has poured in US$2.75 billion to the country—the lender’s single largest infrastructure project financing to date—for the construction of an electric rail line that could ferry about 342,000 passengers a day by 2025. 

Called the Malolos–Clark Railway Project, it will utilize an Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) Train, which runs quieter than diesel and could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60,000 tons a year, as it links the entire 53.1km stretch of Malolos, a suburb of Metro Manila, to the Clark economic zone, a thriving hub of urban development in Central Luzon.

Jamie Leather, ADB’s chief of transport sector group, says Covid may have prompted commuters to opt for private vehicles, but they could be encouraged to use public transport if it has shifted to electric mode for a quicker ride, and is integrated with bus services and informal transport like tricycles and jeepneys, complete with good sidewalks where commuters can feel safe walking. 

“For a city the size of Manila, an electric rail-based metro system would be ideal in order to shift people to something which takes the least space with the least emissions,” Leather says. “Climate change needs to prompt a shift to EVs but absolutely look for a combination of bus transit systems or integrated public transport systems and non-motorized systems.”


This article was produced as part of Earth Journalism Network's Asia-Pacific Story Grants. It was originally published in Eco-Business on 7 September 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Neurosurgeon Joel Macatula charges his BYD electric sports utility vehicle from the comfort of his home / Credit: Joel Macatula.

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