OPINION: Let's welcome Electric Age II in Hong Kong

Writer: 
by N. Balakrishnan

HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) - ​One of the few areas of innovation where Hong Kong beats Singapore is in the realm of electric cars. While most developed economies have a buffer of about 10 per cent of electricity capacity, Hong Kong has by most counts more than 30 per cent of required power as a buffer. 

Few cities look as beautiful as Hong Kong viewed from Victoria Harbour — with brightly lit skyscrapers silhouetted against the waterfront. But few of our residents, reduced to scurrying in underground tunnels like rats in the packed MTR trains or stuck in cars queuing to enter tunnels across the harbor, have a chance to see the view. It’s ironic that it’s mostly tourists taking our iconic ferries who enjoy the nightly show now.

But a new chance to hover over Hong Kong like superman with his girlfriend is within sight because “air taxis” are no longer a fantasy. Driverless air taxis have already made their appearance above the Dubai desert. Such taxis will likely be well received here where the short distance between Hong Kong and Kowloon is traversed by millions daily in packed train carriages, buses and private cars. I cannot see how gadget-mad Hong Kong can escape this trend. Many years ago, a hotel tycoon tried to start a cross-harbor helicopter service but the expected noise from chopper rotors and objections from Wan Chai residents, where the helipad was supposed to be based, killed it off.

One of the few areas of innovation where Hong Kong beats Singapore is in the realm of electric cars. One sees Teslas everywhere in Hong Kong, thanks to a tax concession granted by the government. Singapore, which has more cars and where government revenue depends substantially on taxes on cars and petrol, has been slow about promoting electric vehicles. Tax concessions for electric cars in Hong Kong have ended recently but the critical mass of vehicles are already in the city, and the fact the government does not depend so much on taxing cars and petrol for revenue means our head start with electric cars will continue.

One fact that is not widely appreciated in Hong Kong is that the Chinese mainland is already the largest electric car market in the world and boasts the most comprehensive electric charging infrastructure. Their factories making batteries and other components are better developed on the mainland than in other countries, including the United States. Whether we like it or not, what the mainland does in a big way will affect Hong Kong. And this means “Electric Age II” is coming to Hong Kong sooner than most people realize.

I say “Electric Age II” because Hong Kong is already the most successful example of “Electric Age I”. Egged on by the Hong Kong government in the 1960s and 70s with tax preferences and guaranteed returns, the private-sector electric companies of Hong Kong built up a tremendous amount of electricity generating capacity, when the mainland was suffering from electricity shortages.

While most developed economies have a buffer of about 10 percent of electricity capacity, Hong Kong has by most counts more than 30 percent of required power as a buffer. That is why you never ever hear about electricity shortages or outages in Hong Kong. Electricity rates are also relatively cheap in Hong Kong for a developed economy. Therefore, interiors of many offices in Hong Kong are chilled to an Arctic level in an extravagant display of waste and some office workers wear sweaters inside offices during the summer! This is despite the example the government tried to set by stipulating the standard temperature in government offices must be 25 C.

I have taken visitors from developed countries to Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui at night and the visitors have been astounded by the bright daylight conditions prevailing in these neighborhoods even in the middle of the night!

The situation in Hong Kong may be the nightmare of environmentalists and “greenies” but it also means Hong Kong has more than enough power to switch over to an entirely electric car population relatively quickly. The power charging is the main problem and that is already solved in Hong Kong through a historical accident. Putting in charging stations around this densely populated and compact city can be done in a matter of months, not years.

The main disadvantage of electric cars – limited range — will not be a factor in Hong Kong where most trips are completed in less than an hour. The high price of the electric car will also not be a deterrent, given the affluence of the city and the fact that once the mainland cranks up electric car manufacturing, their price will plummet dramatically as it always does when mainland factories start to churn out a particular product.

The Electric Age II is almost upon us and we should all embrace it wholeheartedly because it will bring with it much cleaner air which we have struggled in vain to achieve for years. Many of us will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. The only comparable social revolution will be the one triggered by the smartphone. The difference being that the former is most certainly going to be much healthier for us than the latter. 

The author is an entrepreneur focusing on the Asian market and commentator on local affairs for various publications.