Manny Tangco, owner of Manila's Malabon Zoo, drives an electric vehicle with the zoo's resident orangutan and an albino python to promote the three-wheeled vehicles called "e-trikes" on July 12, 2014. / Jay Directo, AFP/Getty Images
Swarms of motorized tricycles and brightly painted jeepneys - refashioned American military vehicles from World War II - putt-putt through the sprawling streets of Manila, billowing exhaust into a sky so filled with smog that the sun rarely makes an appearance.
The Philippines may be better known for boxing champs and beauty queens, but the country's emerging as an epicenter of electric vehicle (EV) innovation as government-NGO partnerships support initiatives to replace exhaust-spluttering public transit vehicles with cleaner, quieter electric models. Cars from companies like Tesla tend to grab the limelight, but greening public transit - thereby tackling the country's twin problems of air pollution and a booming population - could make adopting EVs easier and faster. Compared to personal vehicles, which might get driven an hour or so per day, public transit is used constantly - offsetting whatever additional costs there might be with substantial fuel savings. Plus, public transit companies can install their own network of charging stations.
Neighboring countries would do well to take note. The Philippines isn't the only Asian country grappling with pollution and population woes. The continent is home to half the world's population, and its urban population is expected to increase by a whopping 61 percent by 2050. That growth has fueled a surge in car use - and, in turn, air pollution, which killed more than 2 million people in low- and middle-income countries in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific in 2012.
The Philippines stands poised to become "the EV hub of Asia," says Rommel Juan, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines. And some of its neighbors have already started following the archipelago's lead. Thailand has electrified its iconic tuktuk, or motorized rickshaw. And by year's end, Vietnam will begin its first large-scale trial of electric vehicles - in the form of airport shuttles at Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport - which it hopes will replace taxis and motorbikes.
But the Philippines faces major challenges to electrifying public transit. EVs tend to cost much more than their combustion-engine counterparts; infrastructure development can be time- and cost-intensive, requiring close collaboration between engineers and city planners; and there are technological hurdles, like increasing battery life so vehicles aren't forever stopping to recharge.
An estimated 3.5 million motorized tricycles zip through the Philippines, releasing 260,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. To replace these gas-guzzlers, the Philippine government will contribute $98 million to a $500-million joint project between the Asia Development Bank (ADB) and Department of Energy (DOE) to put 100,000 electric-powered tricyles, or e-trikes, on the road. ADB is working with local government units (LGUs) to establish financing mechanisms that will allow drivers to lease or lease-to-own e-trikes for less than $5.00 per day with money that would otherwise have gone toward gas.
So far, a fleet of 20 vibrant blue and canary yellow e-trikes drive through Mandaluyong City as part of the ADB and DOE's ongoing pilot test.
More OZY stories you might like:
But the project has hit bumps in the road. Some LGUs don't qualify for the project's loans, forcing the DOE to shrink their target of rolling out 3,000 units this year to just 500 while helping LGUs improve their credentials. And the agency has yet to settle on a manufacturer, something it had planned to announce last December, from bidders in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Greenpeace's Philippines program manager, Beau Baconguis, points out that e-trikes won't eliminate pollution, but rather transfer it from trike tailpipes to the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants that supply charging stations. E-jeepneys might be a greener solution, since their larger size allows them to carry more passengers.
The Philippines' EV revolution started with NGOs, including Greenpeace, which partnered with Manila-based Green Renewable Independent Power Producers Inc. to pilot the country's first e-jeepneys in Makati in 2007, with plans for a fleet of 15,000 underway. The ADB and DOE launched their e-trike project three years later. Since then, a handful of homegrown companies like EMotors and GerWeiss Motors have cropped up, along with partnerships between these companies and those overseas, like Indiana-based EnerDel and Japan's Terra Motors.
But to really take off, the EV industry needs legislative support. The Alternative Fuels Incentives Act, if passed, would make raw materials and spare parts for alternative fuel vehicles exempt from excise taxes and duties, for example. The Senate and Congress passed their respective versions of the bill, sending it on its way to become law in the 15th Congress in 2012. But before a bicameral committee could convene to reconcile them, national elections began in 2013, nullifying them for the 16th Congress. Speaker Feliciano Belmonte announced last month that the House will prioritize passage of the bill.
Which could mean the sun may once again shine over Manila.
Ozy.com is a USA TODAY content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage from around the Web. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.
Read the original story: Packing a punch against pollution in the Philippines