When thinking about EVs, rich developed countries and large metropolitan areas are the first places that come to mind. Maybe the last place on earth to expect fancy EVs cruising the roads is the remote Kingdom of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, nestled between its large neighbours, India and China.
By Edgar Tijhuis, photo by Profimedia, Gross National Happiness Commission Secretariat archive
In 2014, Bhutan launched its all-embracing Electric Vehicle Initiative. Besides the importation of EVs by businesses and regular citizens, the government planned to replace part of its own fleet of light vehicles with EVs. Plugin Magazine interviewed a range of stakeholders in Bhutan, and was able to look at unique, new data on the introduction of EVs in this country.
In 2014, the government launched the EV initiative, with economic as well as environmental objectives, and promoted the introduction of EVs through fiscal, as well as policy, support. To overcome the high costs for buyers, it allowed the import of second-hand EVs with a mileage of less than 30,000. Furthermore, lower prices were negotiated for new cars. The government signed Memoranda of Understanding with Nissan and Mahindra Reva, and received three Nissan Leafs as gifts.
Talks were also held with Mitsubishi Motors and BMW to introduce their brands of EVs in the country. In 2015, Mitsubishi donated a plug-in hybrid and one electric car to the Government of Bhutan. Furthermore, Tesla offered one car for Bhutan's prime minister to test drive—its model S. According to Bhutanese media, prime minister Tshering Tobgay returned the car to the manufacturer after test driving it for about a year, and he was fully-satisfied with its performance. However, the cost was deemed to be too expensive for Bhutan.
In the first year of the initiative, a range of new and second-hand EVs were imported into Bhutan, almost all going to the capital city, Thimphu. This city is one of the smallest capital cities in the world, home to only about 30,000 cars. In a little over a year, more than a hundred electric vehicles were registered. Though this may seem a modest number, it is, in fact, impressive in comparison to the small fleet of cars in the city. It means that the share of EVs in Thimphu, after a year, is already comparable to that of several European countries.
It's also impressive, given the huge upfront costs of the EVs and the limited wealth of the average Bhutanese customer. Compared to Norway, for example, known for its huge fleet of EVs, people in Bhutan earn twenty-five times less, and borrowing is rather hard, with interest rates as high as 12%. Buyers in Bhutan can take advantage, however, of a discount of about a third of the price, provided by the EV manufacturers. Meanwhile, the number of EVs keeps growing, and will accelerate with an increased number of chargers in Thimphu and across the country. While the start of the project saw only six chargers, the government has planned to install 150, and this will enable rapid growth in EVs in the coming years.
Plugin was uniquely able to analyze all registered EVs in Bhutan, to get an idea of the types of EVs that made their way to this mountain kingdom, as well as the kind of businesses driving EVs. The most-used cars are Nissan Leafs, but a substantial number of Mahindra Reva E20s havs also been introduced, together with one Mitsubishi and one locally-produced EV. Besides the cars, a number of electric two-wheelers may be found: different types of Hero Electrics from India, and one locally-produced electric two-wheeler. The introduction of EVs in Bhutan fits very well with the remarkable philosophy of this country. Bhutan is the only county in the world that has rejected GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the main measure of development, and has introduced a nuanced multidimensional concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The GNH has four pillars, two of which are sustainable socio-economic development and environmental conservation. The 2008 constitution explicitly outlines the duties of the government in the sphere of the environment. Among other things, it demands the government to "protect, conserve and improve the pristine environment and safeguard the biodiversity of the country" and that "a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan's total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time".
So far, Bhutan seems to be on track with its goals to preserve its unique environment. This may seem a quite remarkable achievement, given the rapid economic growth, resulting in more than tripling its GDP in the last fifteen years. Part of the secret behind this is the huge hydropower industry, making use of its many snow- and glacial-fed rivers, with steep slopes and abundant flows. Hydropower exports constitute 25% of its GDP, while another 25% comes in form of hydropower infrastructure construction. With currently 1480 MW capacity used, only about 6% of Bhutan's 24,000 MW potential is exploited.
Plugin Magazine interviewed Lhaba Tshering, Chief Planning Officer of the National Happiness Commission, to hear about the way EVs fit into the broader picture. Bhutan aims to achieve zero emissions in the transport sector and make Thimphu a clean green city. It wants to provide access to clean mobility for the poor and vulnerable sections of society, and so it is working to replace existing ICE taxis with EVs, as well as to explore piloting EV public buses, and expanding the quick charging infrastructure across the country. Though the scale of EV use is still limited, the growth is increasing, and is helped by the planned installation of 150 extra charging stations across the country. Combined with the sheer unlimited supply of hydropower that's increasingly turned into electricity, the outlook looks promising for continuing growth of EV use, to levels that may become much higher than in some industrialized countries in Asia and Europe.
Karma Athang is a businessman from Thimphu, who has been driving a Nissan Leaf for nine months
"Driving the EV is simply fantastic, and I just learned that I have driven a lot more than I did with my combustion engine cars, though my costs for charging are only a fraction of the huge gas bills in the past. I use the car the whole day to visit offices, go out at night, and can easily drive in the mountains. And thanks to the quick charging stations on the road between Paro and Thimphu, the two main cities of Bhutan, donated by the Japanese, you never have to worry about running out of electricity. Finally, while Bhutan imports all its gasoline from India, we produce lots of hydropower electricity. It is the cheapest in the region and we can easily fuel all our future EVs with this."