Environmentalists cast doubts over Sarawak’s innovative fuel station plan

Abang Johari Openg fills a car with hydrogen fuel at the launch of Southeast Asia’s first integrated hydrogen production plant in Kuching.

PETALING JAYA: Environmentalists are not convinced by Sarawak’s plans to build three-in-one fuel stations for vehicles powered by fossil fuel, electricity and hydrogen fuel cells.

Eco-tourism and Conservation Society Malaysia CEO Andrew Sebastian asked if there were that many vehicles in Sarawak which use alternatives to petrol such as hydrogen and electricity to begin with.

“It’s good that Sarawak has a vision for greener and cleaner technology but since we don’t see a big growth in hybrid and electric cars over here, I would assume it will be the same case in Sarawak.

“The move seems laudable but what about the vehicles themselves? Is the state going to subsidise or give special incentives for people who drive hydrogen- and electric-powered cars?” he asked.

Speaking to FMT, Andrew said Sarawak officials would need to discuss manufacturing or importing such vehicles to create a bigger demand for the future of the three-in-one fuel stations to be viable.

But he said the move was still a step in the right direction to combat climate change and reduce dependency on polluting energy sources such as petrol.

He urged other states to emulate Sarawak.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg said on Monday that five of these three-in-one stations would be built at the end of this year, becoming the first in Asean to do so.

He said Sarawak aimed to produce hydrogen from its five hydropower dams.

“This is still under research but we believe over time, there will be new technology that will make the process cheaper,” he said, adding that at least one country was interested in setting up a hydrogen plant there.

Hydrogen, an element which is in abundance, needs to be separated from compounds that contain it – such as water – before it can be used in vehicles. Its atoms can then be used in a fuel cell with oxygen to create electricity.

Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia vice-president Saha Devan proposed a carbon tax to reduce the cost of processing hydrogen there. But he doubted if Sarawak would have the will to do this.

Saha was not as keen with the project as a whole. He told FMT that this was not the first time alternative fuels were being introduced in Malaysia as electric car charging outlets were available in most malls here.

He noted that many petrol stations here used to sell NGV (Natural Gas for Vehicles) but pump equipment had to be changed, costing up to RM10,000 and more and, therefore, NGV at pumps were not as popular after that.

Saha said there used to be buses that ran on NGV in Putrajaya. Drivers who looked for “Petronas NGV” on the Waze navigation app today would still find it listed although the station no longer sold NGV.

He also said hydrogen distribution would be difficult as hydrogen was produced close to its power source, so commercial-scale production might be impractical as dams were far away from where consumers stayed.

The environmental lawyer also asked if locals would be keen on hydrogen fuel manufacturing facilities right at their doorstep if the manufacturing facilities were to be brought into cities to solve this problem.

But, he said electricity produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy “seemed to be” the least damaging for the environment, adding that it was practical to process wind and solar energy in Sarawak.

Rosli Omar, a technical adviser to the Treat Every Environment Special group, said it would be better to let more advanced countries spearhead this and see if such an alternative way of fuelling cars was worth following.

“Hydrogen fuel cell technology for vehicles is very new. So, why should we be involved at this early stage, which may never even take off? Most people can’t even name a vehicle with this technology.”

He said hydrogen was an flammable gas, so a number of safety precautions would need to be in place when transporting and refuelling the processed fuel. This would mean high infrastructure cost.

He also warned that if the electricity or hydrogen for the fuel pumps were produced from power plants that used fossil fuels, then the greenhouse gases emitted would be far greater than vehicles burning petrol and diesel.