Exploring fuel alternatives

While still a new concept to many Malaysians, hydrogen fuel cell cars, as they are called, reportedly originated in Japan and South Korea more than 10 years ago. These two countries still dominate the market for hydrogen vehicles. — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa

WITH climate change and gas emissions being the core of a lot of the world’s problems these days, the race to find sustainable and low-carbon alternatives to traditional fossil fuels has intensified.

The recent hike in diesel prices, as well as the impending removal of the blanket subsidy for the widely used RON95 fuel, are additional reasons to explore alternatives in Malaysia.

Long-time oil subsidies have strained the government’s finances, already burdened by huge debts.

Malaysia’s diesel subsidy bill alone increased more than 10 times to RM14.3bil last year. What are the alternatives?

Several alternatives have been studied and even commercialised elsewhere but in Malaysia, much of these are in infancy, or perhaps even non-existent.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are looked upon as one of the earliest ways to combat climate change. This, of course, notwithstanding the host of other issues that come with EVs.

However, an EV is not the only option. There are several alternatives to petrol and diesel engine vehicles, or what is usually termed as ICE (internal combustion engines).

“EVs are the first to come to our minds when discussing alternatives. However, it is not the only technology that could potentially replace ICE vehicles.

“A hybrid is a very good alternative at this moment. It is akin to Wi-Fi — people expected the technology to be obsolete when 4G hit mainstream, but not only did it stay relevant, it became an integral part of the broadband ecosystem,” says Peter Lim Tze Cheng, a long-time industry observer and former CEO with a fund management company.

He reckons many players wrote off hybrid vehicles when they jumped onto the EV bandwagon.

“However, what is happening now is a resurgence of interest in hybrids. In the US, sales of hybrid vehicles in recent months have grown much faster than EVs and US automakers such as General Motors and Ford, which had written off further investments into hybrids in favour of EVs, are redeploying their resources to expand their hybrid offerings,” he adds.

Likewise, Japanese car makers like Toyota are also seeing record sales in their hybrid segment.

“Hybrids were seen as a stop-gap technology while the world transitioned from ICEs to EVs. Now, hybrids have moved to become the stop-gap technology while the world transitions from EV to hydrogen.”

Hydrogen — the next wave

Which brings us to the other alternative — hydrogen, now often being bandied as a possible substitute for petrol.

Sarawak Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg has said that the state is actively exploring hydrogen as a renewable energy, including studying how to reduce the production cost.

“Find an alternative to diesel, then you don’t need any subsidy. Why should we be talking about diesel when we have hydrogen,” the premier had said at the recent Asia Pacific green hydrogen conference in Sarawak.

While still a new concept to many Malaysians, hydrogen fuel cell cars, as they are called, reportedly originated in Japan and South Korea more than 10 years ago.

These two countries still dominate the market for hydrogen vehicles.

“While many still hold the view that the hydrogen technology is not ready for mass deployment, my take is it can happen faster than expected,” says Lim.

“Is hydrogen an expensive technology at the moment? Sure. Can the cost eventually drop to allow for mass production like the EV? Definitely yes!”

Where is Malaysia in the space of hybrid and hydrogen?

“We are not there yet as we are still busy chasing to be part of the EV value chain.

“For once, maybe we should stop following the footsteps of others, and make the bold move to start getting involved in the hydrogen value chain,” Lim says.

Japan and South Korea are the world leaders in hydrogen technology simply because of their foresight in choosing a different path from their peers.

It’s not too late for Malaysia to be ahead of its South-East Asian counterparts if it chooses to do the same.

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.

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