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Fueling Malaysia’s Electric Buses with Solar Energy

Image source: Monash University Malaysia

Dr Arshad Salema, Monash University Course Director and Researcher, is currently spearheading an innovative new approach for Malaysia’s bus systems.

Together with his team of Master students, Dr Arshad is exploring the feasibility of solar-powered buses in a project collaboration with Bandar Sunway. The project’s main goal is to build a solar photovoltaic (PV) plant on the rooftop of Sunway’s bus depot, so that clean energy can be supplied to power its fleet. At the same time, the project’s focus is to perform a techno-economic analysis of solar energy for the electric bus transport system.

Dr Arshad is exploring the feasibility of solar-powered buses in a project collaboration with Bandar Sunway

“During our visit to BRT-Sunway electric bus depot, we started thinking that these electric buses consume electricity to charge, and this electricity comes from the national grid connected to the power plant. We also observed that the bus depot has a huge rooftop that receives a good amount of solar every year and is not utilised,” said Dr Arshad in an interview with Energy Watch.

Electric buses are viewed as a cleaner alternative to gas-powered fleets, as they run on batteries at the average of 250 km of travel on a single charge, and do not emit pollutants. However, they indirectly contribute to carbon emissions by consuming electricity mainly generated from fossil fuel sources.

“The time taken to charge and run the (BRT-Sunway) bus will remain same, just that the electricity generation or supply will be mix or fully renewable energy. We are focused on the source of energy to charge the bus that should be more renewable based “explains Dr Arshad.

“Energy is a vital commodity and lifeline of any nation. All human activities are directly linked to energy. According to Malaysian Energy statistics, the final energy consumption is about 70,000 ktoe per year. Malaysian consumes around 155,000 GWh of electricity per year. With the 32 million population of Malaysia, per capita energy consumption and electricity consumption is ~2 toe and 4800 kWh, respectively, per year. Given this amount, one can imagine how much energy we consume to run our daily activities. Therefore, it is essential to curb carbon emissions by diverting the energy sources to clean and renewable energy such as solar, biomass, wind, etc. One of the major sources of energy is the generation of electricity, besides producing and manufacturing goods and supplies from industries. Currently, coal is the dominating fuel in Malaysian power plants, which is expected to reduce in the near future. However, with the increase in population and other resources (such as electric vehicles in the future), electricity demand will increase drastically in Malaysia. We will need an alternative source of energy that is clean and affordable,” said Dr Arshad.

“According to the Ministry of Transport, Malaysia report 2016, the transportation sector in Malaysia accounts for approximately 35% of the total energy consumed and produces nearly 50 million metric tons (Mt) of CO2 per year (2015), second only to electrical power generation. The vast majority (85%) of the emission comes from road transportation due to the high rate of personal automobile ownership.” added Dr Arshad.

Malaysia’s transportation sector contributes roughly 26% of the nation’s carbon emissions

Malaysia’s transportation sector contributes roughly 26% of the nation’s carbon emissions, the majority of which stem from road vehicles. In 2014, research agency Nielsen found that Malaysia had the third-highest rate of car ownership in the world – a figure that points not only to high consumption of petrol, but to a significant amount of pollution and emissions.

At the same time, Malaysians prefer driving their own cars, versus using public transport. This is mainly due to the point-to-point connectivity and increased time to their destination. Other factors are comfort, cost, safety, lack of incentives and lack of ample parking,” said Dr Arshad.

He believes therefore solar-powered projects like Sunway’s are of high priority to both public and private players and the community. Based on their preliminary investigation, Dr Arshad shared that roughly five to six electric buses can be charged using the proposed solar PV capacity. Although the figures seem small, capacity could increase after the final implementation or design of the project.

Final amount of energy generated from the solar PV system is also dependent on several factors. Weather conditions, type of parts used, and total capacity installed are some of the ranging factors. Despite this, Dr Arshad is optimistic that the rooftop space available can power most of the electric buses and operational building energy requirements.

He further explains that there are various elements to factor in on the advantages of a solar powered electric bus versus grid powered electric buses. Electric buses powered with solar energy will ultimately reduce the carbon emissions in long term, help decrease the electricity bills and consumption from grid, help increase the attention on cleaner transport options, align with global UN SDGs and the Malaysian plan. However, the bus is highly dependent on weather conditions and is only available in daytime, with the efficiency being quite low as compared to other renewable energy.

As for grid powered electric buses, it will continue to contribute to carbon emissions depending on the fuels used in the power plant, add high operating cost in terms of electricity bill, increase the maximum demand and load on the grid while charging several electric buses at one time. But power is constantly available uninterrupted as electricity cost is quite stable in Malaysia with no worries on grid failure as the utility company can provide backup generators.

Ultimately, grid connected solar PV system is the best choice for the BRT-Sunway electric buses as it can compensate the pros and cons of each system (solar and grid). In the event if solar energy is not available or has a lower production, the electricity can be supplied by the grid.

Initiated in 2018, the project successfully obtained funding from the Monash-Sunway Group of Companies Sustainability grant. Although providing seemingly clear benefits, the project initiation was not without its hurdles. One major constraint faced by Dr Arshad was the financial provision for the project research and development (R&D) and implementation. On top of that, approval processes from stakeholders took longer than expected.

“Our recommendation to the policymakers is to provide adequate funding to the universities, research institutions and organisations of Malaysia to produce cost-effective technologies for solar energy applications. International level research laboratories should be built to perform all types of testing so that the product can be competitive in the international market for export purposes,” he continued.

Currently, Dr Arshad is in talks with Prasarana Malaysia Berhad and Sunway Engineering to implement the project findings, after a delay caused by the pandemic.

“If we continue business as usual in producing energy using fossil fuels, we will reach a critical point of carbon deposit in the atmosphere within a short time. This will be catastrophic to humanity, including Malaysia. Having an efficient, reliable and hassle-free public transport which can help people leave their car at home, will ultimately decrease the use of resources and emissions per capita,” he concluded.


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