Malaysia eyes more natural gas to fuel cars

At a time when countries are facing the inconvenient truth about environmental change, an ordinary taxi sputtering along an expressway in Malaysia can be viewed as a forerunner to a sustainable future powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) from petrol.

This is why it is aggressively driving the introduction of environment-friendly alternative fuels. Malaysians are proving that taking care of the environment does not mean a return to a non-motorised utopia.

The right moves

Malaysia is now ranked 22nd in the world in terms of the number of natural gas vehicles (NGV) on its roads, but the real story reaches far beyond statistics. In Malaysia, that sputtering taxi running on natural gas is a movement in the right direction.

As an oil-producing country, the government subsidises retail fuel where vehicles running on natural gas are often considered sub-par when compared to glitzy petrol-run beauties.

Even with the abundance of subsidised petrol, the government has ensured that CNG is priced at one-third the cost of petrol.

In putting a proper perspective of the green scenario, Professor Dr Barkawi Sahari of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) said that based upon current fuel prices, each petrol-powered vehicle costs an average of 23 sen per kilometre to operate.

"For CNG engine users, it only costs around 11 sen. That is 52% cheaper," said Barkawi.

Positive trend

Although most of the NGVs operating in the country are taxis, a new and positive trend has been emerging lately. Private individuals are converting their vehicles to run on natural gas.

This is shift to green fuel certainly falls in line with the global agenda. Statistics released by NGV Global show that as of December 2011, Iran and Pakistan each had nearly three million natural gas powered vehicles on their roads.

Yet, it wasn’t always a rosy picture; in fact, the beginnings of the green movement were rather humble. Back in 1995, Malaysia had started making the petrol-to-gas switch, but with a mere 851 vehicles.

That number has now raced to 48,946 NGVs, trailing Thailand, among Southeast Asian countries.

Barkawi said a team of researchers from local universities has now developed an engine running solely on natural gas, with proven performance on par with a petrol engine.

"This engine was launched last year, and many stakeholders, even foreign ones, have shown keen interest. I still remember that during our launch ceremony last year, representatives from Iran were eager to order a large number of units for use in government-owned vehicles," Barkawi noted.

Domino effect

His team is still in negotiations with a local carmaker, and he hopes to soon see a completely made-in-Malaysia car running on Malaysian roads using natural gas.

Some day, these cars will become Malaysia’s ubiquitous reality, suggested Barkawi.

"It will be good for the industry. Once a 100% natural gas-run vehicle is available, there will be a domino effect. The production of more of these vehicles would automatically lead to an increase in the number of refuelling stations and users, which in turn, would lead to the production of even more vehicles.

"Malaysia may soon have on its hands a product so good that overseas markets will be vying for it too," he explained.

In reality, growth in this area in Malaysia is slower than in other countries. But the fact that the number of vehicle owners opting for natural gas engines is steadily increasing despite all the apparent impediments says something positive about the change.

Going green

Today, almost all 37,000 taxis in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur use natural gas engines.

One can safely say Malaysian cabbies are in the forefront of making a better planet with less carbon emissions besides opting for a cheaper alternative fuel.

Apart from the need for engine manufacturers, CNG kit-fitting mechanics, government support and a nation inclined to make the switch, the push for NGVs required an expansive network of refuelling stations.

If these stations are far and in between, then the NGV idea could have burn out before it even took off. Infrastructure-wise, Pakistan leads the world, with 3,285 refuelling stations.

Barkawi remarked that Malaysia’s experience with NGVs had elicited keen interest from foreign countries such as Nigeria, Bosnia and Kazakhstan which had started on NGVs.

Networking is the hallmark of the green movement. As such, it is no surprise that after a while, NGV users in Malaysia wanted to talk to like-minded people about their machines, on-road experiences, efficient mechanics, mileage, customer reactions and so on.

By May last year, a collaborative group of markers was set up on Google Maps, allowing the general public to locate natural gas stations in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. To-date, the group has garnered 22,662 views and a five-star rating.

In June 2012, engineer Bakhtiar Ahamid came up with the NGV Locator, a mobile app that uses information culled from the Google Maps grouping.

"I am not an NGV user myself and only started this for a friend, who is now an avid user," he said of his weekend project, adding that the application has been downloaded and installed by 3,198 people, with 23% of the users hailing from Thailand.

Rising trend

For Bakhtiar, Malaysia can emerge as a major player, promoting the use of natural gas in automobiles, not just in Southeast Asia, but also across the world.

In Malaysia, people are increasingly accepting of NGVs. Of course, we still lag behind Thailand, but we have an advantage in the form of natural resources that Thailand doesn’t have.

"In the region, say in Myanmar or Indonesia, the trend is fast on the rise.

“With vast opportunities yet to be explored, we can play an important role in steering growth when it comes to alternative fuel-propelled vehicles and other related infrastructure in these countries," he explained.

For the record, except for Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, no Southeast Asian country had more than 6,000 NGVs as of end 2011. Singapore reported only 5,577, followed by Indonesia, with 5,520 units, while Vietnam and Philippines trailed with less than 300 vehicles each.

"Looking at this data, it is clear that Malaysia is, indeed, strategically positioned and equipped with technological expertise, know-how on deployment, and on top of everything else, its own natural-gas reserves," Barkawi said, capping his arguments.

But what about the West, where supporting the environment is a contentious political issue? Bakhtiar sees a market there.

Since most vehicles in the West that are fitted with natural gas-enabled engines have trudged the roads for 20 years now, sooner or later their engines will need to be replaced. That will open a huge new market for green vehicles, CNG, mechanics and concomitant ancillary trade.

But like most pragmatic green activists who understand the cause and how to wed it to the market, Barkawi is realistic to the core, and that’s what will make Malaysia’s story a success.

"Since ours is a country with huge natural gas reserves and expertise from local carmakers such as Proton, the national car manufacturer, I hope we can start producing our own bi-fuelled engine, if not a full CNG engine, to capture these markets," he stated.

Very soon, that lone, sputtering natural gas-powered taxi will be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and all other slow-moving cars may also be natural gas-powered vehicles. How’s that for a green dream? – Bernama, October 10, 2013.


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