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A Fleet of Electric Ferries Will Help Fight Bangkok’s Toxic Smog

Siraphob Thanthong-Knight
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A Fleet of Electric Ferries Will Help Fight Bangkok’s Toxic Smog

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The next wave of electric vehicles will navigate Thailand’s waterways instead of its highways.

Battery power soon could transform Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, with electric catamarans augmenting the cacophonous, wooden longboats that spew exhaust as they motor past the centuries-old Grand Palace and Temple of Dawn. The monuments typically are cloaked by a toxic, flannel-gray smog –- something the government is trying to lift by promoting alternative-energy transportation.

Billionaire Somphote Ahunai is manufacturing 42 aluminum-alloy electric vessels as he revamps his Energy Absolute Pcl utility into the Tesla of Southeast Asia. The 200-passenger craft and their lithium-ion packs are designed by the company as part of an ambitious blueprint that includes a $3 billion battery factory and a line of electric cars.

“It’ll be pollution-free, exhaust-free and noise-free,” said Somphote, the utility’s founder and chief executive officer. “Going into electric boats extends our company’s reach and creates new opportunities.”

The fleet of white catamarans, each with two motors and 26 battery packs, will take test drives in coming months, with full deployment scheduled for the summer. Energy Absolute is investing 1 billion baht ($33 million) in the business and will install its own fast-charging stations dockside.

The poles can mostly recharge the 24-meter-long (79-foot-long) vessels in about 15 minutes. Each fill-up will last between two and four hours on the water, with a range of 80-100 kilometers (50-62 miles).

The batteries below deck each weigh about 300 kilograms (661 pounds), giving the vessel an 800 kilowatt-hour capacity. That compares with the typical 30 kilowatt hours in an Energy Absolute EV.

The marine batteries are designed to withstand a high-impact collision and can be submerged underwater safely for at least an hour.

“In Southeast Asia, there is a lot of ferry traffic within this range,” said Anil Srivastava, CEO of Swiss battery producer Leclanche SA, which supplies maritime customers. “More than 70% of ferry traffic around the world could become all-electric.”

Governments seeking more ways to reduce noxious emissions and battery makers seeking remedies for stagnant auto sales are casting their eyes offshore – particularly at the vessels that ferry commuters and tourists.

Southeast Asia trails China, Europe and the U.S. in adopting electric cars because of high prices and a preference for two-wheelers. But Thailand sees the technology as a way to ease Bangkok’s air pollution and fortify an automotive industry generating about 12% of gross domestic product.

The air in Bangkok reached an unhealthy level for at least seven days in January, according to data compiled by AirVisual. The capital chokes under poisonous haze as seasonal weather changes prevent pollutants, including exhaust fumes, from dissipating.

“It’s an excellent idea,” said Kris Trexler, a Los Angeles resident and owner of riverside property in Bangkok. “Most boats on the Chao Phraya are heavy polluters.”

In November, the government extended EV tax breaks to companies investing in charging stations for electric boats. The broader incentives are meant to prepare networks for all types of electric transportation, said Duangjai Asawachintachit, secretary general of Thailand’s Board of Investment.

Energy Absolute is applying for a five-year tax break for expanding charging piers.

Bangkok, often described as “Venice of the East,” has a network of river and canal boats that connect to bus and rail lines. The vessels are an alternative to driving on clogged roads in a city with about 10 million residents and 23 million annual visitors, part of a tourism industry responsible for one-fifth of the nation’s economy.

Bangkok’s public utility arm started running a small electric boat on the Phadung Krung Kasem canal in 2018.

The biggest operator of longboats on the river running through the capital said it wasn’t worried by Energy Absolute’s catamarans. Chao Phraya Express Boat Co. Ltd., a century-old company that also operates riverside malls, hotels and restaurants, carries millions of passengers a year.

“More operators means more demand for the river business,” CEO Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram said.

The company also is exploring clean-energy options for its fleet.

“Electric or solar boats can be the future of water transport,” she said.

Examples dot waterways around the world. In 2018, an e-ferry launched service in southwest Taiwan’s Kaohsiung port.

In Denmark, the world’s largest all-electric ferry, the Ellen, carries 200 passengers and 30 cars between two islands -– powered by a Leclanche battery. In Norway, shipyard operator Havyard Group ASA switched its focus to battery-powered boats.

Paris is testing a bubble-like electric water taxi, and the U.S. state of Washington is converting three ferries around Seattle to hybrid-electric propulsion. The state is paying with its share of Volkswagen AG’s settlement of a U.S. emissions-cheating scandal.

BloombergNEF said 2020 should be the year that “real money flows into electrification of marine and aviation sectors.”

“Electrification of near-shore marine vessels is much closer, with several electric ferries already in service in the Nordics and more planned,” the report said. “We expect more large ferry operators to follow Washington State Ferries in announcing long-term plans to transition their fleets.”

Compared with the existing riverboats, Energy Absolute’s catamarans will be emission-free, quieter, faster, and smoother in the water, said Amorn Sapthaweekul, the deputy CEO.

They will serve dozens of piers along the 30-kilometer (19-mile) route, passing by five-star hotels and riverside malls, and serving the Grand Palace and Temple of Dawn.

The maximum speed is 13 knots, or 15 mph. That’s faster than most fleets on the Chao Phraya, and about the same speed as cruiser-style motorboats like the Marlow Pilot 32.

An end-to-end journey will take about 60-75 minutes and cost 20 baht ($0.64), in line with fares charged by other riverboat services.

The service is expected to double riverboat ridership to more than 60,000 people a day, and the catamarans should have at least half of the market share, Amorn said.

If all goes well, Energy Absolute could export the vessels to neighboring countries and would consider developing electric ferries to operate in the open ocean between islands and beaches.

“It’ll transform the city’s commute and transport,” Amorn said. “There’s huge potential in river transport that hasn’t been tapped into.”

--With assistance from David Stringer.

To contact the reporter on this story: Siraphob Thanthong-Knight in Bangkok at rthanthongkn@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Tighe at mtighe4@bloomberg.net;Sunil Jagtiani at sjagtiani@bloomberg.net

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