Resembling a cross between a giant Rubik’s Cube and a modern art installation, the local headquarters of Australian-based technology firm Star8 is Cambodia’s first 100% solar-powered building. Over a thousand solar panels cover the walls and roof of this three-story structure on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and the structure incorporates all manner of solar technology: solar-paneled walls, solar roof tiles, and solar-strips for parasols. But Star8’s managing director in Cambodia, Quentin Peng Khim So, is most enthused about the innovative firm’s hottest new product: solar-powered tuk-tuks. Here he talks to the Khmer Times about the production, marketing and benefits of the environment-friendly three-wheeled vehicles.
KT: Can you describe what a solar tuk-tuk is and what are its capabilities?
KS: We have a range of about 15 different tuk-tuks, running from a traditional passenger-style vehicle through to delivery-style and three-ton trucks. The basic passenger-style model has about 500 watts of power on it. And then it goes up to one kilowatt, and the larger ones to 2.2 kilowatts. The roofs are made entirely of solar panels. On some models, the roof can be extended to increase the surface area for sunlight. On the delivery-style vehicles, there are also panels on the sides.
A full battery charge will get you about 100 km. And when charging by solar, you’re looking at six hours from a dead battery to a full one. The good thing is while you’re driving, you’re also recharging. You can also plug it into a main outlet to recharge the battery, which also takes about six hours. For this we’re looking at introducing DC recharging stations throughout Cambodia, which will reduce that recharge time to about 15 minutes.
KT: Are the vehicles manufactured locally?
KS: For our other products, like solar-panel roof tiles, we have to import parts because a lot of the stuff we need isn’t available here at the moment. But for tuk-tuks we don’t need to import anything. If you drive from [our headquarters] to the city, we pass at least fifty workshops creating tuk-tuks. All we had to do is say, ‘can you do this and that for us’. We have also just finished work on our factory where they will be assembled.
KT: What are the benefits of a solar tuk-tuk compared to the regular petrol-powered vehicles?
KS: First of all, any form of solar power is a guaranteed investment, especially in Cambodia. The temperatures during the day are about 34-35 degrees Celsius. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the production of solar is going to be at peak capacity for about five and a half hours per day.
Second is cost. The basic model starts at $2,500. For a conventional, petrol powered tuk-tuks it’ll cost around $2,000, slightly more for some. So it’s comparable on cost. Our partner, Coca-Cola, has an initiative where if you want to buy one of our tuk-tuks and it costs $3,000 and a comparable regular, petrol-powered tuk-tuk costs $2,500, Coca Cola will subsidize the difference provided you put a Coca-Cola advert on it for 12 months.
Also, we will work with distribution chains and dealerships to establish aftercare services.
KT: Has the Cambodian government been supportive of your efforts?
KS: The government sees [solar-power] as a new industry for Cambodia. The whole package we’re bringing is creating employment. We’re not bringing in foreign workers. All of our staff, except four engineers and directors, are Cambodian. We’re also training new Cambodian staff.
We’ve spoken with high-level officials in the government. Not mid-level bureaucrats, but those at the prime minister’s table. And they’re saying this is good for Cambodia.
KT: Do you have any projected sales figures yet?
KS: We do, but they keep on getting exceeded every week. We’re budgeting for about 20,000 tuk-tuks for Cambodia for the first year – that’s 2014/15. And we’ve currently got tuk-tuks being evaluated in the Philippines, and we’re projecting 100,000 units for that country. We’ve also had interest from African nations, as well as European countries like the Netherlands and Italy.
KT: Besides the solar tuk-tuks, what other work are you doing in Cambodia?
KS: Lots. We have eight to 10 other projects, including large installations and building works, being evaluated at the moment. We also have roughly 10 garment factories that are seriously considering moving into solar. This is because everyone knows the power grid in Cambodia is often down for an hour during a day. In manufacturing, if your machinery is idle for this time, you lose an hour’s production. So a lot of the manufacturing industry is looking at solar as a supplementary energy provider.
KT: When can we expect to see solar tuk-tuks on the streets?
KS: We’re finishing the base productions at the moment. Actually today, we just received the completed version for our basic tuk-tuk. And with this we can market the real thing, not just prototypes. So later in the year you’ll see them driving around Phnom Penh.