Thai energy pioneer pivots to electric buses after axed car deal
Thailand’s Energy Absolute Pcl is shifting its electric-vehicle strategy away from passenger cars to focus on buses, trucks and trains to capitalize on growing demand as the country phases out combustion engines.
The Bangkok-based firm plans its first shipment of 120 buses this month to a company that operates several routes in the Thai capital, according to Deputy Chief Executive Officer Amorn Sapthaweekul. It aims to deliver as many as 600 buses by the end of the year. The 29-seater Mine Bus has a maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour).
Energy Absolute previously planned to sell electric passenger cars through its subsidiary Mine Mobility, which unveiled its SPA1 model in 2019 but hasn’t delivered any. The coronavirus was blamed for the cancellation of an order for 3,500 of the cars by a group of taxi unions because their income dried up as the pandemic crushed tourism.
“Buses and trucks will be our key market," Amorn said in an interview Monday. “We’re not discarding our passenger cars, but we have to assess the market."
Competition is hotting up in Thailand’s EV sector, with the likes of China’s Great Wall Motor Ltd. planning to start local production by 2023. State-owned PTT Pcl and Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group said in May they will also collaborate on hardware and software for EVs.
“If we jump into that market now, we won’t survive," Amorn said. “Once we build our brand reputation and once people trust in our brand, we can eventually move to passenger cars."
While Southeast Asia has been slow to adopt passenger EVs because of high prices and the popularity of motorcycles, Thailand has set 2035 as the target year from which all vehicle sales will be zero emission models.
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Energy Absolute, which sources lithium-ion batteries from Taiwan, is building a $3 billion factory in Chachoengsao province to the east of Bangkok to supply some of its buses. The facility has production capacity of 1 gigawatt-hour per year, compared with Tesla Inc.’s 35 gigawatt-hour factory near Reno, Nevada.
The first phase of the battery plant should be operational by August, Amorn said.
“We’re at 98% now after some delays from Covid travel restrictions, which prevented some work by technicians from abroad," he said. “We can’t wait until Covid is over. Businesses have to continue."
While the new facility is capable of expanding to 4 gigawatt hours, it will remain lower than that for now to match demand in Thailand. “In the long run, we could add more plants to take the capacity up to 50 gigawatt hours," Amorn said.
EVs and batteries should account for about 20% of Energy Absolute’s revenue this year, according to Amorn.
In addition to buses, the company this month signed a memorandum of understanding with China Railway Construction Corp.’s Southeast Asia unit to research hybrid battery locomotives, potentially paving the way for electric-battery trains, Amorn said. It also makes electric-powered river boats, which it says can charge up to 80% in 15 minutes.
“Commercial vehicles are more heavily used and that deterred some competitors whose batteries don’t have fast-charging capabilities. But that’s our strength," Amorn said. “Drivers of passenger cars wouldn’t care so much about a fast charge because they usually plug in overnight with minimal use during the day."
The efforts of Energy Absolute founder Somphote Ahunai to diversify from renewable energy into EVs and batteries has prompted comparisons to Tesla and Elon Musk. Somphote’s stake in his company is worth about $1.6 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.