Solar Energy to Power Electric Vehicles in Lumbini, Nepal

Electric video charging sign. Photo by byronv2.
Electric video charging sign. Photo by byronv2.

By Keiichi Tamaki

A new ADB clean transport project will help the holy city realize its full potential for sustainable tourism.

Adopting reliable, safe and comfortable urban transport is no easy feat in South Asia. In most cities the transport needs of citizens and tourists alike are served by loud, smoke-belching auto-rickshaws and disorderly-operated buses that clog the roads and cause air and noise pollution.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lumbini in Nepal has suffered the problem for decades. The government has sought to introduce electric vehicles (EVs), but lacked the funding as well as a source of affordable electricity to power the vehicles. The relative absence of transport options has also harmed the tourism industry, complicating the travel plans of the 1.2 million people that visit there each year to see the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

A new ADB project hopes to provide a long-term solution to Lumbini’s transport woes, and help the city realize its full potential for sustainable tourism.

Invitations for bids to provide a fleet of EVs and build a 150-kilowatt solar power plant within the heritage site were issued this week by ADB. The bidding process for the EVs will be carried out by Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation through an estimated $1.2 million grant financed by the Asia Clean Energy Fund and administered by ADB. Another estimated $1.35 million grant has been allocated to procure a solar power plant to ensure the EVs have a steady local electric supply.

Clean and efficient transport is imperative for Lumbini to serve an ever-growing flow of tourists, among them many Buddhist pilgrims. But since Lumbini cannot live on tourism alone, the city is already hosting two Special Economic Zones for industrial development that are having an impact on the environment and traffic. We believe Lumbini can enjoy both tourism and industrial development – as long as proper plans for sustainable transport are in place.

Lumbini to become model for EV adoption

Introducing simple, cheap, yet substandard EVs is not at all difficult; what’s hard is to deploy high-quality ones. Indeed, explosive adoption of shabby electric auto-rickshaws is now an unstoppable trend in several cities in Bangladesh (except for Dhaka where they are banned) and Nepal. But we think such a trend is not conducive to true improvement of urban transport. The Lumbini project intends to present a better model.

Also, city bus operations in South Asia are a mix of monopolistic public operations and poorly regulated private-run schemes. Neither qualifies as reliable, safe and comfortable urban transport except for in a few better-managed cities such as Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Chennai in India.

Furthermore, a positive EV experience in Lumbini could see the project replicated elsewhere in Nepal—where the generation potential for hydroelectricity is huge—and even in other countries in South Asia.

The project is assisted by three consultant groups. The first team is national engineers. The second team, from the University of Tokyo, is overseeing the master plan for the UNESCO World Heritage Site originally prepared by the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. The third team is from DENSO, a Japanese supplier of automotive technologies that has developed a similar pilot system for integrating EVs and solar power plants.

The Nepal government wants to procure the vehicles as a whole fleet – with appropriate generic roadworthiness requirements and a minimum total passenger seating capacity of 140. Most of the EVs will be leased out to a private operator through a competitive auction, and they may feature new technologies such as global satellite positioning, bidirectional inverters—which allow power to flow two ways so the EVs can supply power when they are not running—and automatic meters.

Building on Kathmandu’s experience

Adopting EVs will help Lumbini reduce noise and pollution from poorly maintained diesel- and gasoline-powered buses, and make visits to the heritage site more pleasant for tourists. Their deployment is timely, as tourist arrivals are expected to increase substantially with the upgrading of the Gautam Buddha Airport to become Nepal’s second international airport. The airport, located 20 km from the heritage site and currently being expanded under an ADB-financed project, is expected to service 760,000 passengers by 2030. The solar power plant will also help make the local electricity supply more reliable.

Lumbini’s EVs will also build on the country’s largely unsung successful track record of introducing sustainable, eco-friendly transport in the capital Kathmandu in the 1990s. Over 600 of the EVs built back then still ply the streets of Kathmandu without any government subsidy, although it’s probably time to upgrade them.

Kathmandu’s experience demonstrates that EVs in Nepal can work, but it’s time to bring in better, newer technology. Also, introducing EVs must not be limited to the design and testing phase and be supplemented by strong cooperation from the government, the public sector and civil society groups for EVs to become truly accepted as an alternative transportation mode. In Lumbini, the plan is for only EVs to ply the roads leading to the UNESCO World Heritage site’s entry point, and thus not disturb the calm and serenity of Lord Buddha’s birthplace.

In any case, Lumbini is a good place to start promoting clean urban transport in Nepal. Let’s hope the city’s experience with EVs works out, and that we can scale up the project in Kathmandu and beyond.