Once touted as the next big green thing, CNG vehicles have had a bumpy ride in Singapore

FARIS MOKHTAR Today Online 1 Feb 18;

SINGAPORE — Back in 2001, the authorities embarked on a push for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles to ply Singapore’s roads. But less than two decades later, such vehicles are a rare sight on the island despite some promising signs initially.

A lack of infrastructural support as well as the cost ineffectiveness of CNG vehicles following the removal of government rebates are key factors for the dwindling numbers, said industry players and experts.

Explaining the removal of the Green Vehicle Rebate scheme in 2013, a National Environment Agency (NEA) spokesperson told TODAY that its replacement, the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS), “encourages the take-up of fuel-efficient cars based on carbon dioxide emissions rather than prescribed vehicle technologies”. The CEVS was in turn replaced at the start of this year by the Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES), which takes into account four more pollutants apart from carbon dioxide — nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

“The change further encourages buyers to choose models that have lower emissions across all five pollutants to improve ambient air quality as well,” said the NEA spokesperson.

As of last December, the CNG private car population has gone down by close to two-thirds to about 1,000, compared to the peak of 2,706 in 2010, based on figures from the Land Transport Authority (LTA). Over the same period, the number of CNG buses has also dropped by more than half from 44 to 12.

When it comes to CNG taxis, the decline was even more drastic: From 2,836 in 2011 to zero this year. Earlier this week, The Straits Times reported that the last CNG taxi – owned by Trans-Cab – has been scrapped.

THE UPS AND DOWNS

Singapore’s earlier push for CNG vehicles could be traced back to 2001, when then-Acting Environment Minister Lim Swee Say said his ministry placed such vehicles “high on our priority list” because they emit almost no particulate matter, very little carbon monoxide, and 20 to 30 per cent less carbon dioxide, compared to petrol or diesel vehicles. “In other words, a natural gas vehicle is cleaner than a hybrid vehicle. It is more implementable, compared to the electric vehicle. At the same time, it is safer than an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) vehicle,” Mr Lim had said.

The following year, test drives for CNG public buses and taxis commenced, and these later took to the roads officially, followed by private CNG cars.

But CNG vehicles come with a higher price tag, pointed out assistant professor Lynette Cheah from the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s engineering systems and design faculty. This is mainly due to the additional cost of installing the fuel tank system, she added.

To incentivise the switch to green vehicles, the Green Vehicle Rebate scheme was enhanced in 2005, four years after it was first introduced. Under the enhanced scheme, cuts in the Additional Registration Fee for CNG vehicles were doubled from the original 20 per cent to 40 per cent, lowering the overall price of such vehicles.

The scheme was in place till 2012, before it was replaced by the CEVS. As a result, prices of CNG cars cost between S$3,000 and S$7,000 more than petrol cars, said sales manager of Jack Cars Enterprise Michael Tan. The higher prices caused the popularity of CNG vehicles to nosedive, said asst prof Cheah. “In general, rebates and subsidies can support the transition to alternative vehicle technologies and fuels. However, it is not sustainable for any government to offer them in the long run,” she added.

‘EXPENSIVE, TROUBLESOME’

In Singapore, CNG is taxed at S$0.20 per kg while there is a S$0.41 per litre levy on petrol. The pump price of CNG is about S$2.15 per kg currently. In comparison, diesel costs about S$1.66 per litre while motorists pay about S$2.25 per litre for 95-octane petrol.

Adding to the woes of CNG vehicle owners are the higher maintenance costs. Such vehicles often experience wear and tear quicker as they run at a very high temperature, said deputy general manager of Prime Taxi Neo Chee Yong.

“It just does not make sense to own a CNG vehicle anymore. There’s no incentive to do so if the prices are higher than petrol cars,” said Mr Neo.

Prime Taxi used to own some 100 CNG taxis, which it first introduced in August 2007. The taxis, which are bi-fuel, stopped using CNG and ran on petrol in 2012.

Yong Lee Seng Motor director Raymond Tang reiterated that the government’s removal of its rebates exacerbated the demise of CNG vehicles here, which failed to catch on among motorists because of the lack of refuelling stations.

Since the first CNG pump station was established in Jurong Island in 2002, the figure grew to five in 2009. But there are currently only three remaining — in Mandai, Serangoon North and Toh Tuck Road.

A Trans-Cab taxi driver, who wanted to be known only as Mr Kamal, said that back when he was driving a CNG cab in 2010, pumping gas was a hassle as he could only go to a few places. In addition, there would also be a long queue of other taxis waiting to refuel. “If I’m in Tampines for example, it’s a long journey to go to Serangoon to pump gas. And sometimes I have to wait for about an hour at the station for my turn. I could have earned money from at least two rides during that waiting time,” said Mr Kamal, who now drives a Chevrolet Trans-Cab vehicle.

Similarly, startup founder Felix Ng, who bought his CNG-run Chevrolet Optra Magnum in 2013, lamented the hassle of driving to the refuelling stations scattered across the island. His car will be scrapped in April, and he is swearing off CNG cars. Compared to driving a car which runs on petrol, Mr Ng said that he saves about S$30 to S$40 each time he refuels but the hassle outweighs the savings. “Plus, I think CNG vehicles are a waste of time because they have a shorter driving range and you have to top up the gas every now and then,” he added.

On whether the government could have provided more infrastructural support, the NEA spokesperson noted that it co-funded the establishment of three CNG stations, which “facilitated the initial development of CNG refuelling infrastructure by the private sector”.

Around the world, the CNG vehicle market is still thriving in countries such as China, India and Pakistan. This is due to the “favourable local government incentives or policies, and availability of refuelling stations”, said Dr Cheah.

While the plight of CNG vehicles in Singapore could be attributed to a confluence of factors, Prem Roy Motoring director Roy Lim felt that the government should provide more incentives if it wants green vehicles to take off.

He cited the example of the tax surcharge imposed on those who want to bring in the Tesla electric car. “We’re the only country taxing its people for using green vehicles instead of giving rebates,” said Mr Lim. “I think the current system is just confusing and it sends a confusing message to Singaporeans.”

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) had explained in 2016 that electric cars are not “carbon emissions-free”. Then, Mr Joe Nguyen, who bought a second-hand Tesla Model S, was hit with a S$15,000 emissions surcharge. LTA had also pointed out that had the car been brand new, it would have earned a rebate.

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