First SA electric minibus taxi could soon be spotted on Stellenbosch roads: Prof Thinus Booysen

There are 250,000 minibus taxis, many of them aging on South African roads spewing carbon emissions into the air. These emissions are surging with the near collapse of the country’s train system. Electric vehicles could have a transformative effect on health, carbon emissions and costs to hard-hit commuters. But, when it comes to the transition to electric vehicles, South Africa however remains in the slow lane. This has prompted a team from the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Engineering to lead the way and develop an electric minibus taxi with industry partner, Rham Equipment.  Heading the project is Prof Thinus Booysen who said his team is investigating the potential strain on the electricity grid and is considering the installations of solar power at taxi ranks, and big battery banks. Prof Booysen said their test vehicle will be roadworthy in the next month and it will then be compared to an imported electric minibus. So, if you’re driving around Stellenbosch in the next month and you see a silent minibus packed with students and engineers, it could just be the future of public transportation arriving in South Africa. – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

Challenges of Having Negative Grid Capacity and Possible Solutions

There are two aspects to consider. The first is the impact of grid fragility or lack of grid on the mobility of electric vehicles. This is not too bad because the vehicles are big batteries on wheels, and you can charge them whenever you want and then use the power to propel the vehicle. So, this is not the biggest issue. Load shedding powers off for two or so hours. The second question is the more important one, and that is the impact of electric vehicles on the frail grid. According to our estimates, minibus taxis alone will contribute approximately 5% of our current grid capacity. This is problematic because we are currently experiencing load shedding or rolling blackouts. In fact, we have negative grid capacity spare at the moment.

There are two ways to solve this. One is renewable energy. We are looking at installing solar power at taxi ranks or bus termini. The other is with battery banks. Rather than just charging vehicles directly from the grid, we are looking at installing big battery banks to act as a capacitor or a buffer between the grid and the vehicle. The battery bank will slowly charge from the grid or from renewable energy. When there is grid access, it can charge from renewable energy when available.

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Cost Implications of Retrofitting vs. a New Imported Electric Minibus Taxi

It’s important to highlight that the cost of a vehicle depends on where it is made. Currently, no entity in South Africa manufactures electric minibus taxis. If it were to be produced locally, the cost would not be significantly different. It would likely be in the region of about R500,000, which is approximately £25,000. However, because South Africa has a large manufacturing industry, there are high import duties and taxes on imported vehicles. Electric vehicles are also seen as luxury goods, so there is an additional tax on electric vehicles imported into South Africa. Many people in the industry are calling for these taxes to be scrapped so that we can import electric vehicles at a lower cost and become more clean and energy-efficient. However, this would kill local production and jobs. If you import a brand new minibus taxi from China, even though it is relatively cheap to buy, import duties more than double the cost. Buses imported into Cape Town have had import duties of more than 55%. This makes them very expensive and is one of the reasons why we are retrofitting vehicles at the moment. The retrofit of our first vehicle cost us approximately R750,000. However, this was because it was the first one and there was a lot of trial and error involved. We estimate that the final price of retrofitting a minibus taxi will be in the region of R430,000 to R470,000.

Solar Panel on a Taxi Roof?

The solar panel on the roof of a taxi is a good idea, but it doesn’t contribute nearly enough. You would need approximately half a tennis court’s worth of solar panels to support 50% of the taxi’s energy requirements. So, the solar roof panel will help, but it will only contribute a minimal amount to meet the demand.

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Government came to the party, collaborating with industry and funding agencies

This has been one of the biggest pleasures of being in academia. We are in a privileged position where we can engage with industry and government and funding agencies at the same time and because Stellenbosch University has very strong links with industry. We love working with problems that are real and problems that make a societal difference and have an impact. It puts us in a position to do this. What I found very useful is that the government, in the case of our retrofit, they’ve come to the party and they said we will fund this because we can see the value of it. Our industry partners have said, It’s fine, we trust you, we will work with you so that we can come up with a solution where they’re the hands and the people to make the retrofit and we are the ones with a bigger overseeing picture. We’re the ones with the perspective and with all the designs and all the simulations. So for me, the universities are in a very unique position where we’re in a country with a big trust deficit, if you don’t mind my saying so, we’re in a position where there’s actually a lot of trust in the universities and we don’t stand to gain anything apart from doing research. I think we are pivotal in this process.

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