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On the road to zero emissions, Bhutan hits a few electric car bumps

[THIMPHU] With abundant supplies of clean electricity from hydropower, this tiny Himalayan kingdom has set itself an ambitious goal: to become a world leader in the use of electric vehicles.

Last year, Bhutan's prime minister introduced the country's first two electric car models - the Nissan LEAF and Mahindra Reva - and suspended import taxes in an effort to win buyers.

"Electricity is like oil for us and is the most abundant resource," said Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. "My target for Bhutan is a 70 per cent reduction in fossil fuel imports by 2020." But the super highway to a clean-car future has not been without bumps in this remote Buddhist nation.

More than a year after the launch, about 50 electric Nissan vehicles are plying the roads in Bhutan, and at least 22 more have been ordered, according to the local partner of Nissan, Thunder Motors.

That represents only about a tenth of a percent of the total cars on the road in Bhutan, according to government transport statistics.

But the two local dealers of electric vehicles in this nation of about 760,000 people complain that a lack of government support for a broader recharging network has limited the uptake of the otherwise well-received vehicles.

Misinformation about the limitations of electric car battery life and the cost of batteries, also has been a problem, they say.

"It is the most powerful and most well-received car in the country," Tashi Wangchuk, the chief executive officer of Thunder Motors, said of the Nissan LEAF. "Sales are okay by Bhutan standards." He said his company offers a 16-year warranty on the battery of the electric cars they sell, and that they had had no battery complaints.

But while he said he appreciated the government's push for the country to adopt electric vehicles and its tax exemption on electric car imports, he said driving large-scale interest would require government support for developing more charging infrastructure and land for building charging stations.

The country so far has six recharging stations in the capital, built with the support of Nissan Motor Company.

Another car dealer in Bhutan's capital, who partnered with India-based electric car dealer Mahindra Reva, said he is yet to sell even one of the company's two-door electric cars.

That appears to be because Nissan offered a discount of almost 50 per cent on the first 77 cars sold in Bhutan. Those cars sold for US$14,516 each. Once the offer ends they will sell for US$28,000, dealers said.

The Mahindra Reva, on the other hand, costs US$16,129. "Mahindra Reva is doing badly and we have not sold any Reva cars on a commercial scale," said Ugen Tsechup who runs Zimdra Automobiles, one of Bhutan's most popular car dealers.

But "once the LEAF's subsidy is removed, Mahindra Reva can be an option too" Tshechup predicted.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that "he is committed to see Bhutan take sustainable transport very seriously" and had, for instance, raised taxes on traditional vehicles to make it more attractive for people to buy electric vehicles. "The government has done its part and left it to the private sector to take it forward," he said.

But he also said the government is studying the viability of introducing electric buses and taxis.

One aim, he said, is to cut fossil fuel imports from India and harness more of Bhutan's own green power as part of its effort to move to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Some buyers of the electric cars say they've been happy with the switch.

Yeshey Tshering, a taxi driver who bought his first electric car four months ago, said he previously spent US$403 on fuel every month and US$48 on engine oil but now saves most of that.

"I do not have to pay for fuel, emission tests and maintenance," he said. "I pay US$16 a month on electricity bills (for recharging). "The car is total value for money," he said.

His only concern, he said, was whether a better network of charging stations would be created. "Once they are installed at different districts, the market ought to get better," Mr Tshering said.

Bhutan has seen a surge in car use and ownership since a ban on import of car since July 2012 was lifted in July 2014.