Sarawak: Towards sustainable mobility


File photo of a hydrogen bus.

Sarawak is making strides in transforming its public transport system, with plans in place not only to enhance public transport options but also making current ones more sustainable.

As population increases, so too does the number of cars on the road, leading to traffic congestions in Kuching and other major towns in the state.

A study on urban traffic in Kuching showed an expected increase in number of vehicles on the road from 317,400 in 2015 to an anticipated 449,200 by the year 2030.

As such, the government plans to address this with an array of solutions, such as introducing an integrated smart traffic light system, a bus rapid transit system and an automated rapid transit system.

Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) wholly-owned subsidiary Sarawak Metro Sdn Bhd (Sarawak Metro) has been entrusted by the Sarawak government to transform the public road transport system in major urban areas.

Sarawak Metro’s aim is to provide urban commuters a safe and reliable mode of travel that is also more convenient, comfortable and environmentally-friendly. Additionally, Sarawak Metro will be the asset and project owner of the Kuching Urban Transportation System (KUTS).

KUTS is a government-initiated project established in line with the state’s digital transformation agenda and the development of the Smart City initiative to address the need for a modern public transportation system.

It serves as a backbone system to minimise and alleviate traffic congestion towards Kuching’s city centre by improving connectivity via an efficient and integrated public transportation system.

KUTS will be developed in stages, with the project’s civil and structural works expected to commence in 2022, while the project’s system works are expected to begin the following year.

The first phase of the project will involve the construction of two urban lines covering a total distance of about 50km.

The Blue Line (Samarahan Line), which runs from Rembus in Kota Samarahan to Hikmah Exchange, covers a distance of about 27km with stops at 14 stations, while the Red Line (Serian Line), which runs from Mile 12 Kuching-Serian Road to The Isthmus, will cover a distance of about 23km with stops at 13 stations. The first and last mile connectivity for the stations will be serviced by hydrogen fuel-cell feeder buses.

At the core of the KUTS project is the autonomous rail transit (ART), which has been deemed more feasible by the state government than the light rail transit (LRT) due to the cost effectiveness of the system.

The ART vehicle will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, in tandem with the state government’s aspiration to develop the hydrogen economy and realise the government’s Green Hydrogen Agenda in becoming an important producer of green hydrogen for the region.

The choice of using hydrogen fuel cell to power the ART is also in support of the government’s move to decarbonise Sarawak’s public transportation system.

“This project also provides a platform for the introduction and promotion of green hydrogen technology in public transportation,” Sarawak Metro chief executive officer (CEO) Mazli Mustaffa said adding that public support is vital to ensure the smooth and successful implementation of this project.

Once in operation, Sarawak’s ART will be the first vehicle of its kind in the world to be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

To note, Abang Johari had previously stated that the ART transport system is expected to be ready by 2025.

Hydrogen energy leading the path

Hydrogen is the current highlight as a future energy option because of its clean and stable properties, Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA) president Professor Hidetoshi Nishimura remarked, adding that demand will be wide and consumed for large-scale power generation, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) as well as heating demand in the industry sector.

“Thus, the hydrogen demand potential in the future, such as 2030 to 2050, will be significant,” Nishimura said in his preface on ERIA’s Research Project Report 2019: Demand and Supply Potential of Hydrogen Energy in East Asia – Phase 2.

For Sarawak which may eventually become a producer of hydrogen energy, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg highlighted that the state could join the league of hydrogen- producing nations by 2050 should it succeed in tapping into the potential of its resources to produce this renewable energy source.

Source: Sarawak Metro

“The EU Hydrogen study cited that by 2030-2050, the (hydrogen) market would be about US$11 trillion,” Abang Johari said during a webinar on ‘Sarawak 2021 Budget: Towards a High Income Society in 2030’ in November 2020.

“During that period, Australia would be the main country that would export hydrogen, and I think we (Sarawak) could be part of that league to produce hydrogen.”

To note, earlier that month, Sarawak Energy and Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) entered a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), formalising a collaboration to explore the commercial production of green hydrogen and its value supply chain in Asia.

The signing marked a significant milestone in Sarawak’s effort to scale up and venture into energy export with hydrogen as an energy carrier to meet global clean energy demand and position Sarawak as the hub for the hydrogen value chain.

Commenting on the memorandum of understanding, the Chief Minister said the Sarawak Government was always supportive of hydrogen-related collaborations and research as it firmly believes in the future of hydrogen as a competitive fuel source.

“As you know, we have started with Sarawak Energy and the relevant parties to explore the potential of hydrogen and how to produce hydrogen based on the renewable energy resources available in Sarawak.

“I am confident hydrogen has a key role in a sustainable energy future although production cost is currently high.

“Over time and with efficient production technology, there is a possibility that the (hydrogen) production cost will reduce so that it is competitive with other available fuels for the world.

“It is my hope therefore that clean energy becomes our main target in our process to transform our economy and from Sarawak’s perspective, add value to the resources that we have.

“We can exploit its potential based on the world’s need and as a green approach.”

During the International Greentech & Eco Products Exhibition & Conference Malaysia 2020 (IGEM 2020), Sarawak Energy’s group chief executive officer Datu Haji Sharbini Suhaili shared that Sarawak is blessed with abundant renewable hydropower potential that can be harnessed to produce low carbon hydrogen and is well positioned to become a significant hydrogen player in the global hydrogen value chain.

“Hydrogen is already recognised globally as a key enabler in energy decarbonisation and ultimately, climate change mitigation,” Sharbini said.

“If all players work together, we can benefit collectively from technology improvements and economies of scale, driving down costs of the hydrogen value chain and increasing uptake in the coming years.

“We thank the Government of Sarawak for their trust in allowing Sarawak Energy to play a pivotal role through research in the development or application of technologies that will alter the energy utilisation landscape and progress a green hydrogen economy for Sarawak and beyond.”

To recap, Sarawak Energy has been entrusted to lead a state-funded research project on hydrogen’s commercial and public application.

According to Sarawak Energy, this was based on the premise that hydrogen could become the primary fuel of choice for areas such as the transportation sector and energy storage as the technology matures and becomes more commercially attractive in the future.

Sarawak Energy now produces green hydrogen through electrolysis at its integrated hydrogen production plant and refuelling station in Kuching. It is capable of fuelling up to five fuel cell buses and 10 fuel cell cars per day.

Making its way around Kuching

On Sarawak Metro’s hydrogen bus trial operation, a new route was recently introduced in connection with the first anniversary of the operation, covering more areas of the city for the greater convenience of commuters.

“Over this one-year period, we have proven that this green technology – hydrogen FCEVs – can work well in a tropical climate and can actually provide us with a glimpse of what’s possible in terms of making our cities cleaner through smart public transportation systems,” Minister of Transport Datuk Lee Kim Shin said during the launch of the new route back in January 2020.

“This is an exciting development, especially since the continued trial operation of these vehicles would serve to better prepare us for the KUTS, which would rely heavily on green and clean technology.”

SEDC chairman Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr Abdul Aziz Husain said the hydrogen bus trial operation had provided valuable insight into the workings of operating a fleet of heavy hydrogen FCEVs, especially for public transportation.

“Our aspiration to have a cleaner public transport system in Sarawak has moved one step closer with the implementation of our hydrogen bus trial operation, which remains to be the only hydrogen bus service operating in Southeast Asia the moment,” he said.

The buses were sourced from China’s Foshan Feichi Automobile Manufacture Co, Ltd (Feichi).

“We record our appreciation for the close cooperation established between our team at Sarawak Metro and Feichi during the trial run. Together with Feichi, we would continue to monitor, assess and analyse the performance of the hydrogen buses during the trial operation.”

As of February 2021, the trial operation and passenger service of the hydrogen buses for both the Downtown Heritage Loop and Damai Loop routes are temporarily suspended until further notice.

Sarawak Metro in a statement said the temporary suspension was part of its precautionary safety measures as the bus drivers had close contact with a third-party contractor, who was recently tested positive for Covid-19.

Currently, the hydrogen bus operator is making arrangements for all the bus drivers to undergo a Covid-19 screening and conduct sanitising work on all the buses.

“Since resuming our trial operation on September 2 last year, we have adhered strictly to all the standard operating procedures (SOPs) outlined by the State Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) including regular sanitising inside the vehicles, ensuring everyone in the bus wears face masks and taking every passengers’ body temperature.

“We regret any inconvenience caused by the temporary suspension of the hydrogen bus trial operation and we will duly notify the public once the passenger service is resumed,” it said.

Electromobility shift in Southeast Asia to accelerate the future

The shift towards electromobility in Southeast Asia is currently underway, with some projecting that it will accelerate in the future as electrical infrastructures develop and more electric vehicle (EV) models are made available in the region.

In Deloitte’s Future of Electromobility in Southeast Asia podcast last year, Deloitte’s Future of Mobility Solution Centre director Andrey Berdichevskiy opined that Southeast Asia has the advantage over other regions in that, the former can learn from earlier developments and also adapt newer and more advanced technologies.

“I have worked on the topic of electrification across Europe, US and China and the main thing we have as an advantage in Southeast Asia is that we can learn from the developments earlier on and also adapt newer and more advanced technologies, both on the hardware and software side,” Berdichevskiy said.

“So for example, the topic of having a much higher maturity of fast charging right now, when the Southeast Asian markets are entering and starting to build up infrastructure or much-advanced solutions for public transport charging such as bus charging.

“There are also optimisation platforms that can help us to leapfrog in the region. For example, there can be some variable decisions to make. Maybe there are some parts of the city where I can just offer fast-charging infrastructure because I believe this is the future.

“What I think is important is to go much more into simulation approaches and help to scale up the infrastructure in Southeast Asia parallel to the demand.”

He observed that in other markets, a land grab approach where a lot of infrastructures has been built in advance without securing the utilisation of charging stations and that led to a lot of sunk costs and a lot of working capital where the return on investments was not there to justify further expansion of infrastructure.

“So rather than putting all the investments at once, I would see a gradual scale-up of infrastructure which requires one to understand also where the demand is coming from. On the one hand, these demands have to be satisfied.

“The people adapting to the charging stations, which bus routes should I take, which should I electrify first and what will be my financial impact?

“How can I improve the fleet management in terms of allocating the vehicles to the charging stations and increasing the high utilisation of electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure – these are the questions where simulation approaches and the clear orchestration of the charging station through data can help.”

Meanwhile, Electric Vehicle Association of Singapore president Terence Siew opined that electrification will be happening at different rates for different countries and the reason for this is because of the different geographies, the different electrical infrastructure and the different availability of EV models.

“Having said that, when you are operating in a certain country, say, Southeast Asia, what works for your country might not necessarily be easily scaled to your neighbouring countries,” Siew said.

“On this point, based on the readiness for EV charging infrastructure, an important transition technology is in the form of plug-in hybrids which should be dominant in many parts of Southeast Asia due to the unavailability of a reliable charging network.

“This means that when ecosystem players are operating in this space (Southeast Asia), they need to ensure that the charging infrastructure has to be catered to the different kinds of EVs – be it full electric, plug-in hybrids or buses or fleet vehicles. And also to improve the overall public awareness of charging infrastructure that is available.”

As for how soon can consumers in Southeast Asia expect a widespread shift towards electromobility, Berdichevskiy believed that the shift is already happening, with the slow but steady introduction of new models.

“We see more and more tenders coming towards bus electrification. It starts with a small number of buses – I think about 60 buses right now in Singapore – but there will be more to come in the future and we will only see bigger shifts happening with the introduction of new models,” Berdichevskiy noted.

“So, a lot of manufacturers globally have already committed to the vision to electrify major parts of their portfolio, even up to the whole portfolio with electric cars.

“And when the consumers start having the choice, we will also see more and more adoption. The incentives have to be in place and then the economics will play out. But I think it’s also because when we talk about the consumer, the emotional aspect of a vehicle or mobility purchase is also there.”

He added that as we see more variety (of EVs) catering to different tastes, the electrification agenda will also advance.

“What’s so exciting about the electric cars is that you have a lot of freedom in designing those as you can separate the top hat – the upper part which is used as a driver cell – from the lower part, the skateboard.

“With that, you can also save costs. So, I believe the shift is already happening and it will only accelerate in the future and I’m very much looking forward to it.”