THIMPHU – The remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has signed a deal with auto giant Nissan to become the ultimate showcase for electric cars, taking advantage of its abundant hydropower.
The announcement was made Friday during Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn’s visit to Thimphu, the picturesque capital of Bhutan.
Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said EVs would help meet Bhutan’s zero emissions target.
“An important part of that plan will be sustainable and environmentally friendly zero emission transport,” he added during a joint news conference with Ghosn.
“We don’t want to rely on and we don’t want to buy fossil fuel,” he added.
To mark the announcement, which came on the birthday of Bhutan’s revered king, Nissan said it was donating two Leaf EVs to the government.
It will also supply Bhutan’s pool of government cars and fleet of taxis with the same model for an undisclosed price.
Nissan plans to set up a network of charging stations across Thimphu, which industry experts see as vital in persuading motorists to invest in electric vehicles.
Wedged between India and China, the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” is famed for its Gross National Happiness development model that specifically takes into account the environment in addition to psychological well-being.
Landlocked and mountainous, Bhutan is teeming with rivers and waterfalls that allow it to run four hydroelectric plants with a combined capacity of 1,400 megawatts — equivalent to a powerful nuclear reactor.
Most of the electricity is sold to India, but Bhutan also has to import traditional fossil fuels to meet the needs of motorists.
“(Electric vehicles) will help Bhutan to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the need to import foreign oil,” said Ghosn at the news conference.
Ghosn said the deal would make Bhutan an environmental role model, predicting that the government investment would encourage consumers.
“What we are talking about is the very initial step. Because of this vision that we see for Bhutan, you can expect hundreds or hopefully thousands of Leafs (to be) sold in Bhutan,” Ghosn added.
Tobgay, who came to power after winning Bhutan’s second ever round of elections last July, sees EVs as a way of becoming more self-sufficient and demonstrating the rapid development of a nation that only introduced television in 1999.
The prime minister acknowledged that the high price of the vehicles — the Leaf costs around $20,000 in the United States — could scare off motorists but said he was hoping for outside help.
“If we can get international agencies and individuals to support us to subsidize one-third of that price, it becomes very affordable,” he said.
While other capitals in South Asia are often cloaked in pollution, the residents of Thimpu enjoy a largely pristine climate.
As all vehicles have to be imported and are heavily taxed, car ownership is relatively small and taxis are widely used.
Nissan has emerged as the world leader in the electric car market, having invested €4 billion ($5.5 billion) with French partner Renault, which owns over 40 percent of the company.
Launched in 2010, the Nissan Leaf is now the best-selling electric car in history after becoming the first model to pass the 100,000 mark for worldwide sales at the end of last year.
One of the Leaf’s chief attractions is its special fast charger, which can provide a decent charge in just half an hour, a vast improvement on the eight hours it usually takes when linked to a regular power outlet.
The Leaf can go as fast as 150 kph and get 200 km per charge.
The limited range of most green vehicles and their relatively high prices have proved major hurdles to sales growth. But while the market remains tiny, experts expect demand to grow sharply in the next few years as emissions standards rise across the world.