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Electricity billionaire building the Tesla of Thailand

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Energy Absolute markets the Mine Mobility as the first EV designed and built in Thailand. The five-seat hatchback can travel as many as 200km on a single charge, according to the company.

Bangkok

IT'S THE epitome of a closed circuit: the utility helping to power one of South-east Asia's biggest cities is building electric cars, batteries and charging stations for the nascent market, and then supplying the juice to keep them all running.

Thai billionaire Somphote Ahunai envisions his Energy Absolute as a titan of electric vehicles (EVs) even though there are less than 1,500 battery-powered vehicles in the country. That's about 0.004 per cent of registered vehicles through December.

South-east Asia has been slow to adopt passenger EVs because of high sticker prices and a predilection for two-wheelers.

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But Thailand's government sees them as a way to ease Bangkok's air pollution and fortify an automotive industry generating about 12 per cent of gross domestic product.

Energy Absolute is using subsidies and tax breaks to put 5,000 EVs on the road by next year, backed by 700-plus charging stations. It's also planning a US$3 billion factory to make lithium-ion batteries.

"The trend is clear: it's time for Thailand to stop being complacent and pursue higher technology to drive economic growth," said Mr Somphote, the utility's founder and chief executive officer. "EV technology opens up new opportunities for success by new players."

Energy Absolute, Thailand's second-largest electricity generating company by market capitalisation, unveiled its Mine Mobility passenger EV at this year's Bangkok Motor Show and immediately received more than 4,500 orders. The car is priced at about 1.2 million baht (S$52,857), cheaper than a comparable Nissan Leaf or Kia Soul EV.

Yet the car will head out on the highway just as EV showrooms start getting crowded with foreign models.

Carmakers are chasing growth in South-east Asia as combined sales in China, the US and Europe decline amid the trade war and Brexit. The Bloomberg World Auto Manufacturers Index is down more than 15 per cent in the past 12 months.

BYD Co, the Chinese manufacturer backed by Warren Buffett, said last year it planned to deliver 1,100 cars to Bangkok as part of a deal with the government to become the biggest supplier of pure EVs.

BMW, Nissan and Mercedes Benz unit all announced plans to produce and assemble EVs locally, researcher BloombergNEF said.

Energy Absolute also will try to overcome local preferences for cheaper motorcycles and scooters. Thais buy about two million motorcycles a year, according to statistics compiled by BloombergNEF.

"EVs will be a business that provides new growth for the company," said Suwat Sinsadok, a utilities analyst at Finansia Syrus Securities in Bangkok. "This is the right business strategy, and they're getting into it at the right time."

Energy Absolute markets the Mine Mobility as the first EV designed and built in Thailand. The five-seat hatchback can travel as many as 200km on a single charge, according to the company. That's less than a Tesla Model 3 or BYD e6 but enough to convince a group of five taxi unions to order 3,500 cars for metropolitan Bangkok. The group chose Energy Absolute because it promised the earliest delivery.

"We've been trying to go electric for the past two years," said Theppanom Phinsuwan, the group's representative. "We want to be first to the cars because we think EV is the way the world is heading."

Using EVs would cut drivers' expenses by half, increasing their profit and allowing them to pay off their car loans sooner, he added. WP