September - December 2007
Power and poisons

Cleaning up the ‘King’

IT’S CALLED nostalgically as the ‘King of the Road,’ but to many, the jeepney is more the scourge of the streets.

Bystanders check out the e-jeepney. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

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Motorists complain of jeepneys that hog the roads and stall traffic by suddenly stopping in the middle of a busy street to pick up passengers. Even worse are the jeepneys that belch thick, black, acrid fumes as they speed down the asphalt.

Some of this may soon change. An electric jeepney is being touted as the first phase of an eco-friendly-cities campaign spearheaded by Green and Renewable Independent Power Producers (GRIPP), a consortium of environment organization Greenpeace and nongovernmental organizations from Negros Occidental.

Three years ago, GRIPP thought of injecting a sustainable transport component into its Climate Friendly Cities program, which aims to try and develop an energy alternative to non-renewable resources such as oil. GRIPP founder and Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Athena Ballesteros says they chose to develop jeepney with an electric motor so that the country’s “most artistic, iconic, and flamboyant” mode of transportation would at least be less of a pollutant.

Jeepneys usually run on diesel, whose fumes are among the biggest contributors to air pollution and global warming. Diesel fumes are also irritating to the eyes, respiratory system, and the skin, according to health experts. Diesel inhalation, meanwhile, can cause a variety of ailments: headache, dizziness, drowsiness, incoordination, and euphoria. It can also lead to pneumatitis, which can leave one choking, coughing, wheezing; breathlessness, cyanosis, and fever are other possible effects of diesel inhalation. Diesel is a possible carcinogen as well.

Now comes the GRIPP jeepney, which is powered by 12 six-volt, deep-cycle batteries. Its electric motor is similar to that of a big electric fan, and it can travel for 120 kilometers on a single charge. The e-jeepney has no emissions, and the motor automatically shuts down when it comes to a stop, thus saving batteries.

The prototype can be plugged into an ordinary socket, but the plan is to have a biogas digester produce the electricity for e-jeepneys. Thus, aside from helping facilitate the permits, franchising, and comply with other government regulations in order to get the e-jeepney on the road, a city that wants to try the e-jeepney must also set aside land for a biogas digester, which will generate electricity from biodegradable waste, as well as commit to a dedicated waste collection system and waste segregation.

In this way, Ballesteros says, the digester will also help cities comply with the solid waste management law, which requires cities to segregate trash. Ninety percent of cities across the country have yet to follow this law, she says.

The project was set to be launched in GRIPP’s home province of Negros Occidental. But Ballesteros says that the city of Makati got wind of it and “(in) a matter of two weeks, it was able to produce the counterpart services and commitments.” Makati has 5,700 jeepneys, which ply an average 20 to 30 kilometers every day. The city is currently looking for a suitable location for the digester.

Heads turned as the e-jeepney purred along Ayala Ave. during a brief demonstration there recently. A friendly jeepney driver came over to chat during a red light. After admiring the e-jeepney, the first thing he wanted to know was what the e-jeepney ran on. The he asked how long the batteries would last.

But some driver’s groups are skeptic of the e-jeepney. Efren de Luna, president of the Philippine Confederation of Drivers and Operators-Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations (PCDO-ACTO) doesn’t think the e-jeepney would be able to climb uphill or cover long distances. George San Mateo, spokesperson of the transport group Piston (United Nationwide Association of Drivers and Operators), says that he has heard the e-jeepney has yet to receive ISO certification, and is thus not yet eligible for registration.

Still, San Mateo admits that the rising diesel prices are eating into jeepney drivers’ profits. Each jeepney driver needs about 30 liters of diesel a day. A single liter of diesel, which can power a jeepney for up to eight kilometers, costs P33.50. An e-jeepney can travel the same distance on just P13.33 worth of electricity, based on power rates that will have drivers spending P150-P200 per charge.

Even though the e-jeepney was launched last July 4, it has yet to ply a regular route, as the Land Transportation Office still has to classify it. Once the e-jeepney is registered, a franchise will have to be granted before it can take to the road. Another potential roadblock to the e-jeepney’s widespread implementation is its cost: a hefty P550,000, or more than three times that of a regular jeepney. About 22 percent or P120,000 of the e-jeepney’s price tag is actually tax levied by the customs bureau, which says the e-jeepney is a luxury item.

“This is the problem if it’s not a government-led initiative,” says Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Jasper Inventor.

The prototype, with a fiberglass roof and aluminum body, was imported from China. The consortium has inked an agreement with the Motor Vehicles Parts Manufacturers Association of the Philippines to produce the e-jeepney locally. GRIPP hopes to have a Philippine-assembled prototype in six months. But parts such as the motor, batteries, and controller would still have to be imported, as there is yet no local technological know-how needed to produce these parts.

Greenpeace plans to set up a cooperative, where jeepney drivers and operators can apply for loans. The cooperative can also buy jeeps, subsidize these, act as operators, or even use a financing scheme.

DOEN, a Dutch foundation and entrepreneurial venture support organization, has given 300,000 euros for a three-year pilot program, which includes the first 50 jeepneys. GRIPP has three to five years to show the e-jeepney project is sustainable and viable.

This may depend partly on gaining the nod of jeepney drivers. Ballesteros says the Makati government has facilitated two consultations with drivers’ groups. “We want to involve them in the pilot testing and get their comments, and make revisions based on their comments on the e-jeeps,” she says.

GRIPP is collaborating with experts from the University of the Philippines to further study the technology being used, as well as the e-jeepney’s social acceptability and health and the environment impacts. Eventually, GRIPP hopes to replicate Nepal’s success with the electric safa tempo, a three-wheeled minibus. Nepal’s initial fleet of eight safa tempos grew to 600 in six years. But Ballesteros concedes, “In three years, we’ll be lucky if 10 percent of the jeepneys in Makati and Negros are electric.”

As for disciplining jeepney drivers, well, that’s another story.