Does Singapore hate Electric Vehicles?

Singapore’s relationship with Electric Vehicles (EV) is complicated. Elsewhere in the world EVs are the golden child, the clean, green, environmentally friendly face of the future, and they are given subsidies befitting of that status. Yet here in Singapore, with all our technology on a tiny island that’s a natural breeding ground for EVs, they have been mostly ignored, and the government makes it a point not to provide subsidies.

It’s almost as if we are playing hard to get.

In fact, Tesla, the electric car company was slapped in the face not once but twice by local regulators. First in 2011 when it failed to get a tax rebate, and a second time last year, when a Tesla Model S, a full electric car, recieved a carbon tax of S$15,000. Why is the Singapore government being so resistant towards EVs when the rest of the world is embracing it?

The Long Tailpipe

A lot of the hype surrounding electric cars is based on the fact that they are “zero emissions”, but they aren’t really, especially in Singapore. The key is that electricity is not emissions free in Singapore. The Singapore power grid is supplied entirely by natural gas, which produces emissions as well. Basically, all the emissions that are not being produced by an internal combustion engine on the road is being produced at the power plant. It sounds logical, but Singapore might be the only country that calculates emissions like this.

Once you take into account the grid emission factor like this, Electric cars perform neck to neck with the most efficient Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, and there already is an existing scheme to reward cleaner vehicles, known as the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS). This is probably why there is no special rebates for EVs — with a few calculations, they can already be given breaks together under the same scheme as ICE vehicles.

Of course, one can argue whether carbon emissions should be the only thing that matters. Natural gas power plants emit a large amount of sulfur oxides on top of carbon emissions, and that may not be captured in a carbon based scheme. One study has tried to account for the social costs of more forms of pollutants, and found that the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, through the long tailpipe methodology, created half the pollutant cost compared to a Toyota Corolla, only a small fraction of which accrued to carbon emissions or greenhouse gasses.

The noise and heat produced by ICE vehicles is harder to measure but has very real costs vis-a-vis EVs. An internal combustion engine basically runs on a series of controlled explosions, and this produces tremendous amounts of heat that cars leave behind everywhere they go. Electric motors are not only free from this, the whole propulsion system, including electromagnetic braking, is frictionless. This means EVs are virtually silent, and this is great for quality of life as our roads become much quieter in a tightly packed city like Singapore.

Is the rest of the world wrong?

In many other countries, the fuel mix includes much more renewable sources, so zero emissions may actually be a thing. For large countries where many people live in landed properties, it is possible for the cars to be off grid too, as Elon Musk’s newly announced Solar Roof + Powerwall 2 combo seeks to encourage. The sustainability of grid energy is not something EV companies have control over, which is also one of the reasons why zero emissions is everybody’s tagline.

That being said, there is still hope for EVs in Singapore. Recently, the transport minister was quoted saying that a brand new Model 3 is projected to earn the full CEVS rebate, and two newly imported Tesla Model Ss were given CEVS tax breaks. The cost of even the Model 3 remains high thanks to COE here in Singapore, but the CEVS will definitely help.