Taking charge of Sarawak’s EV charging stations

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Besides close collaboration between the private sector, government, and local communities, many factors will be crucial in accelerating the shift towards electric vehicles in the heartland areas of East Malaysia.

KUCHING: The drive towards electric vehicles give rise to very interesting but crucial supporting industry: EV charging stations.

The exponentially-growing global share of EVs is proof that electric mobility is here to stay.

With over 15,000 units of plug-in hybrids, hybrids and full electric vehicles on the road in Malaysia, there is no doubt that more would consider buying an EV.

And necessary to facilitate this expansion is the need for more EV charging stations across the state.

According to the Low Carbon Mobility Blueprint (LMBP) 2021-2030, Malaysia has a target of having 10,000 EV charging stations in place by 2025 and to have hybrids and EVs account for at least 15 per cent of the total industry volume by 2030.

Sarawak is ahead in the race for EV charging stations by stately comparison. The Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) plans to build six multi-fuel refuelling stations in the state, according to its chairman Tan Sri Datuk Amar Abdul Aziz Husain back in October 2020.

The first is at Darul Hana, the second at Daro and plans are in place for one in Pusa, Kapit, Sibu and Miri.

The project is implemented via SEDC’s subsidiary, SEDC Energy Sdn Bhd.

Meanwhile, in early September this year, clean energy solutions provider Gentari Sdn Bhd (Gentari) via its wholly-owned subsidiary, Gentari Green Mobility Sdn Bhd, has expanded its EV charging network into Sarawak in partnership with Sarawak Energy Bhd (Sarawak Energy).

The first charging points in the state are located at Kuching’s ICOM Square, a strategic lifestyle location with easy access to malls, restaurants and office buildings.

The station offers three charging points, two of which are equipped with an impressive 180kW DC charging power, making it the fastest and largest capacity public charging station in Borneo.

EV users in Kuching will also have the convenience of accessing a network of 600 charging points across Malaysia through Gentari’s EV roaming network via both the Setel and JomCharge mobile application.

“The launch of Gentari’s inaugural EV fast charging station in Kuching in collaboration with Sarawak Energy Berhad, marks a pivotal stride in advancing the EV infrastructure across Sarawak.

“This launch, the first of many to come, signifies substantial progress in bolstering the region’s EV network.

“By introducing 24/7 fast charging capabilities, we are not only building range confidence, but making the transition to EVs an appealing one,” said Shah Yang Razalli, deputy chief executive officer of Gentari and chief executive officer of Green Mobility Sdn Bhd.

“Sarawak Energy is pleased to introduce Borneo’s fastest public EV Charger in partnership with Gentari. This marks the beginning of our commitment to build a network of EV chargers across Sarawak, connecting major towns and cities starting here in Kuching and crossing the Pan Borneo Highway for an anxiety free journey.”

“As Malaysia’s largest renewable energy provider, we are committed to greening the grid and electrifying the fleet. This aligns perfectly with Sarawak’s Post COVID-19 Development Strategy in support of decarbonising the transportation sector,” said Datu Sharbini Suhaili, group chief executive officer of Sarawak Energy.

 

On the rise in Sarawak

In early September this year, clean energy solutions provider Gentari via its wholly-owned subsidiary, Gentari Green Mobility Sdn Bhd, has expanded its EV charging network into Sarawak in partnership with Sarawak Energy.

Dr Avishek Kumar, chief executive officer and co-founder of VFlowTech, told BizHive that there is growing popularity of EVs in Malaysia, but the adoption of EVs among heartland East Malaysian residents will also depend on various factors

These include infrastructure development, affordability, range capabilities, environmental consciousness, and government support.

“While there are still some challenges, the potential for increased EV adoption exists if these factors are addressed effectively,” he said during the interview.

“Besides close collaboration between the private sector, government, and local communities, many factors will be crucial in accelerating the shift towards electric vehicles in the heartland areas of East Malaysia.

“Firstly, access to charging stations is a crucial factor in the widespread adoption of EVs,” he explained.

“East Malaysia, especially in the heartland areas, might not have a well-established charging infrastructure compared to urban centres.

“The availability and accessibility of charging stations will play a significant role in the decision-making process for potential EV buyers.”

Touching on the issue of costs, Avishek commented that EVs are generally more expensive than conventional vehicles due to the high costs associated with battery technology.

Additionally, he said the limited incentives and subsidies for EVs in Malaysia might pose a financial barrier for heartland residents. Affordability will be a significant consideration for potential EV buyers.

“Another key factor is range anxiety,” he added. “Concerns about the limited range of EVs might deter potential buyers, especially in areas with limited charging infrastructure.

“In heartland East Malaysia, where long distances and remote locations are common, range anxiety might be a significant factor inhibiting EV adoption.”

Thus, educating consumers about the technology’s range capabilities and addressing their concerns regarding range anxiety will be crucial in promoting EVs in these areas.

Meanwhile, the increasing global focus on climate change and the transition to more sustainable modes of transportation can influence people’s attitudes towards EVs.

This comes as East Malaysia, known for its diverse ecosystems and abundant natural resources, may have a population that is more inclined towards environmental conservation.

“Promoting the environmental benefits of EVs and their contribution to reducing carbon emissions can contribute to the adoption of EVs among environmentally conscious individuals.”

 

Eye on fluctuating electricity prices

As electricity becomes the new “fuel” for EVs, concerns arise as to whether electricity prices may be affected by the influx of this new sector.

On top of purchasing an EV, how much more would Malaysians have to spend to charge up an EV, especially during peak periods?

As EVs become more popular in Malaysia, industry experts fear that price hikes may be similar to ones with car fuel.

“There is definitely significance of EVs in Malaysia’s transportation sector and its potential impact on the pricing dynamics,” Avishek said.

“The Malaysian government has been proactive in promoting the adoption of EVs through various policies, incentives, and initiatives.

“These efforts aim to encourage EV adoption, increase charging infrastructure, and reduce carbon emissions.

“As such, the government’s focus on sustainable transportation and environmental conservation suggests that they may continue to provide incentives and support for EVs, helping to mitigate any potential price increases.”

EVs primarily rely on electricity for charging, which raises concerns about potential price hikes akin to car fuel.

However, it is important to note that the price of electricity is regulated by the government, ensuring stability and affordability.

Electricity tariffs are determined based on various factors such as generation costs, distribution costs, and government policies, rather than being directly tied to the global oil market, Avishek said.

“Therefore, the popularity of EVs should not necessarily result in significant price hikes for electricity,” he added.

“While it is difficult to predict future price hikes with certainty, it is unlikely that the cost of EVs will follow a similar pattern to the fluctuations in car fuel prices.

“The price of EVs is influenced by various factors, including production costs, battery technology advancements, and economies of scale. As the market for EVs grows and more automakers invest in research and development, it is expected that costs will decrease over time.

“Furthermore, with the advancement of renewable energy sources and the decoupling of EV charging from fossil fuel-generated electricity, EV owners may experience more stable and predictable electric charging costs.”

While it is challenging to make precise predictions, he said the transition to EVs in Malaysia was unlikely to lead to significant price hikes similar to those seen with car fuel.

“The regulated electricity pricing, government incentives, growing market, advancements in technology, and utilisation of indigenous resources all contribute to a more stable and potentially affordable EV ecosystem.”

 

The down-low on RE batteries

Other batteries such as LFP chemistry and possible green hydrogen will be required to support the growing power demand intermittency of EV charging load.

Charging stations need to incorporate a source of energy that ensures a reliable and readily available supply of electricity.

However, the truth is, there are limitations to current RE batteries in cars and in these charging stations.

Currently, there are a handful of vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFBs) that have been installed in EV charging stations to manage high-power demands during peak charging periods.

In addition to VRFBs, other batteries such as lithium-ion phosphate (LFP) chemistry and possible green hydrogen will be required to support the growing power demand intermittency of EV charging load.

“In fact we believe, there is a need for hybrid batteries to manage multiple complex applications of rising EV charging demand,” Avishek said, noting that different battery technology has edge in different applications and hybridizing it bring best of both worlding in terms of cost and performance.

“While lithium-ion batteries are viable options for energy storage in high power and low energy applications in EV charging stations, VRFBs offer certain advantages that make them an attractive choice, particularly when it comes to ensuring affordable EV charging during peak periods (low power high energy applications).”

Avishek said VRFBs are renowned for their scalability and long cycle life. Their modular design allows for easy expansion of storage capacity, making it adaptable to evolving charging station needs.

This scalability ensures that charging stations can efficiently manage peak demand without the need for frequent replacements, contributing to cost savings in the long run, he said.

“Also, VRFBs are considered safer than some other battery technologies due to the use of non-flammable electrolyte and passive containment systems. This safety aspect can lead to lower insurance costs and reduced expenses related to safety measures, further contributing to affordability.

“VRFBs contribute to grid stability by buffering and regulating energy flow. This can help avoid peak demand charges, which are often a significant portion of commercial electricity costs.

“By stabilising the grid, VRFBs enhance overall grid efficiency and reduce the need for costly infrastructure upgrades.”

Among many reasons, VRFBs can store electricity when a charging station is unused, and be better distributed in a faster and more affordable manner during high demand periods.

 

VFRBs offer minimal costs to station providers

Just like any other business, costs are a key concern especially during the industry’s infancy. Electric vehicles already come at a high cost, but what of EV batteries and their charging stations?

Avishek said the integration of VFRBs into current charging stations can positively impact the trajectory of EV pricing because they can contribute to cost reductions for EV charging.

“VFRBs can provide a buffer for managing the fluctuations in electricity demand and supply. They store excess energy during periods of low demand and release it during peak demand hours, thereby helping to avoid costly peak demand charges.

“This optimised load management leads to more cost-efficient operations for charging infrastructure.”

VFRBs, which are long-lasting can provide backup power and stabilise the electricity supply, enhancing the overall reliability of charging station operations.

This in turn can lead to reduced downtime and maintenance costs, contributing to the cost-effectiveness of the charging infrastructure.

VFRBs can store excess energy generated by renewable sources, such as solar, when production exceeds demand. This stored energy can then be used for EV charging during periods of low renewable energy generation, reducing the reliance on grid electricity and potentially decreasing charging costs.

A key benefit here in Sabah and Sarawak is its accessibility off-grid. In remote areas or locations with unreliable grid access, VFRBs can also enable off-grid EV charging.

This can eliminate the need for expensive grid connection infrastructure and reduce ongoing grid-related costs, he said.

“Incorporating VFRBs into current EV charging stations presents a compelling opportunity to enhance energy efficiency, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.

“This, in turn, aligns with the overarching trend of greater affordability and stability in EV charging costs, making electric vehicles an increasingly attractive and sustainable mode of transportation for the future.”

In remote areas of East Malaysia that are not connected to the main power grid, Avishek said EFRBs can provide a reliable and sustainable alternative to diesel generators.

“These batteries can store energy from solar panels or other renewable sources to power homes, businesses, and community facilities during times when the renewable source is not available or inadequate.

“In certain parts of East Malaysia, establishing microgrids can be a more cost-effective solution compared to extending the main power grid to remote locations.

“VFRBs can be utilised in microgrids to store excess energy, smooth out fluctuations in power supply and demand, and ensure stable and reliable electricity for local communities.”

 

Of EV batteries and sustainability

VRFBs and other renewable energy storage technologies present diverse opportunities to advance sustainability targets on both national and global scales, extending beyond their conventional use in EV charging stations.

These batteries find applications in various contexts, contributing significantly to sustainability goals. Beyond EV infrastructure, VRFBs can be seamlessly integrated into renewable energy systems, such as solar farms and wind turbines.

In these setups, they play a crucial role in storing excess energy and ensuring a consistent power supply, even during periods of low renewable energy generation.

The versatility of these batteries extends to microgrids and energy storage projects, where they enhance grid stability, improve overall efficiency, and facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources into existing power systems.

On a national scale, these batteries are indispensable for supporting a country’s clean power importation, a fundamental element in sustainable energy practices.

The Malaysian government’s National Energy Transition Roadmap serves as an exemplary case, underscoring the crucial role of energy storage in harnessing the potential of renewable energy.

This initiative aims to make renewable energy sources the primary source for the economy by 2050. The seamless integration of renewables into the grid relies on the deployment of advanced battery solutions.

Internationally, the demand for VRFBs extends to regions with substantial renewable energy ambitions, aligning with global initiatives for a sustainable and low-carbon energy landscape.

As demonstrated by China’s installation of 100GW of renewable energy, the batteries are essential for achieving the substantial annual capacity of 600 to 700GW hours required for a successful energy transition. This underscores the critical role of batteries in addressing sustainability targets beyond electric vehicle charging stations.

Specific to East Malaysia, there are several other opportunities for vanadium flow redox batteries to be placed in East Malaysia aside from charging stations for electric vehicles.

“East Malaysia has a significant potential for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. VFRBs can be used to store excess energy generated from these sources and provide a stable supply of electricity during periods of low generation or high demand.

“This will help maximise the utilisation of renewable energy and promote the transition towards a low-carbon energy system.”

VFRBs can also be used in various industrial applications, such as providing backup power to support critical processes, reducing peak demand charges, and optimising energy consumption and management.

Industries in East Malaysia can benefit from energy storage solutions that minimise reliance on intermittent grid supply and enhance operational efficiency.

Additionally, the use of VFRBs can potentially contribute to minimising greenhouse gas emissions, improving grid stability and resilience, reducing electricity costs, and supporting sustainable development goals in East Malaysia.

In other markets like Singapore, these batteries are already making significant contributions to local infrastructure. VFlowTech has recently placed their 1MWh battery system on Pulau Ubin which guarantees a reliable source of clean electricity, leading to a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions and bolstering long-term energy self-reliance.

“In addition to that, they have also deployed a long-duration energy storage solution, the PowerCube, to power various aspects of the CleanTech One building, including corridor lighting, elevators, and car park lighting.

What is particularly exciting is the promising potential for VRFBs to scale up for more extensive applications, potentially becoming primary energy sources for entire communities, or even cities in the future. This scalability has the potential to replace reliance on diesel generators, offering a cleaner and more sustainable energy solution for urban environments.

Besides charging stations for vehicles, VRFBs offer invaluable support in disaster-prone areas.

By establishing clean energy microgrids, they provide swift and reliable energy solutions during emergencies, including natural disasters and humanitarian crises, ensuring continuous power for life-saving equipment, lighting, and climate control.

This dual capability, supporting daily infrastructure and serving as a critical lifeline in emergencies, underscores the profound impact of VRFB technology on enhancing sustainability in various scenarios.