Electric vehicles or EVs as we like to call them are not a new thing in India. India’s tryst with electric vehicles began in 1994 with the establishment of Reva Electric Car Company (RECC) by Chetan Maini. RECC launced its first commercial EV and named it REVA. REVA is the acronym for “Revolutionary Electric Vehicle Alternative” and it made clear the intention of the company to develop and produce an affordable and compact electric car. This was followed by several attempts to bring EVs in the two-wheeler segment of the Indian market with not much success. As noble these endeavours were, they got marred by the lack of ground-breaking innovations in the technology and infrastructure that could lend EVs the robustness they lacked which the already established internal-combustion engine (ICE) based automobile market possessed.
Come 2019, is the scene any different than it was before? Sure, you could see all those battery run e-rikshaws in Metro cities and some electric bikes here and there, but the condition has not changed much. The Indian government has been pushing for the complete transition of three-wheelers as well as two-wheelers of capacities below 150 cc. The larger plan is to examine shifting non-commercial vehicles at an intra-state level and then extend it to inter-state by including commercial vehicles and passenger vehicles. NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank is leading this transition to a cleaner means of transportation. However, truth be told we still lack the infrastructure and innovation we need for a sustainable market for EVs to exist in India.
We have dreamt for long of living in pollution-free cities, breathing fresh air and the coming age of EVs in India could turn it into a reality. But the government despite its focus to create and sustain a market for EVs has a few obstacles to tackle to realise the dream.
The Need for an Overhaul in Infrastructure
The push for EVs by the Modi government is part of its resolution to reduce India’s carbon footprint to one-third of 2005 levels by 2030. India’s total energy production is 356.817 GW of which renewable sources account for a small share of 17.3 % while the majority 79.8 % comes from fossil fuels like coal.
Truly speaking, an electric vehicle may be considered clean but it cannot be called zero-emission if coal is the source of the electricity.
The lack of infrastructure to support EVs becomes gapes more if we consider the fact that there are only 350 public EV chargers compared to 57,000 petrol pumps says a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. Praveer Sinha, managing director of Tata Power Delhi Distribution wrote in his blog that by 2030, a city as big as Delhi could require around 300,000 fast chargers, presuming a 30% EV penetration into an estimated car parc (number of cars or vehicles in a given area) of 10 million.
Now, considering an average commuting distance of 20-30 km, an EV would consume about 6-8 kWh of power which is about the same as the daily power requirements of small Indian household. If we assume an 80% of EV adoption by 2030, the power demand by that time would reach 100 terawatt-hour which would be about 5% of the total electricity demand of India, says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment.
India would need to overhaul its power grids and sub-stations to have a dedicated capacity for the EV industry. Special thrust is needed to promote such industries.
-Harkiran Sanjeevi, Deputy Director of NITI Aayog in interview to Quartz
He also added, “Global experience also suggests that the distribution systems are generally quite loaded and not enough spare capacity is available to support charging infrastructure. A similar situation exists in Indian cities where adding banks of chargers is possible only with the upgrading of distribution networks”.
Though lagging behind other countries in charging infrastructure, the government has somewhat been doing its bid in power generation through renewable resources. The government’s focus on this can be seen through its ambitious aim to install 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. India has a renewable energy capacity of 74.79 GW with solar and wind power making up 25.21 GW and 35.14 GW respectively.
Innovating Technologies for EVs
Battery is the at the heart of an EV like an IC engine is for a convention vehicle. Currently, the battery technology being widely used in EVs is of lithium-ion batteries which consist of a liquid electrolyte which allows the ions to pass between the negative and positive terminals, thus creating current.
India imports lithium-ion batteries due to the lack of local manufacturing and non-availability of lithium. This shoots up the price of an EV of which the batteries constitute about 50% compared to the 15% of an IC engine vehicle. Ola states in a report that the power billed for EVs should be billed at Rs 5/kWh not the current Rs 17/kWh for financial feasibility. Coupled with the high prices, EVs lack the robustness of IC engine vehicles, making them unsuitable for long distance travelling. The present battery as well as charging technologies at their low charge densities and long charging times are nowhere near the range that fossil-fuel run IC engines offer. 10 hours of charging time for a 300 odd kilometres of range indeed sounds like a stretch compared to 7 minutes of filling time for a range of about a 1000 km.
However, this presents a unique opportunity for India to emerge as a leader in the innovation in EV technology. The EV industry in India should get as much importance as its space missions do. Some rich countries like the US and UK are already investing in the development of better battery and charging technologies. India should definitely take a leaf from their books if it really wants its EV dream fulfilled.
India should start investing in the research and development of indigenously built batteries with high charge densities and fast charging technologies. This would bring down the cost and pave the way for the widespread adoption of EVs.
Impact on the Conventional Automobile Economy
The government has been building strategies to create an ecosystem for EVs in India. These include fiscal and non-fiscal measures to create demand for such vehicles as well as adequate supplies. For instance, the tax on lithium-ion batteries used by EVs was reduced to 18% last year. Last week, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council set up a committee to discuss cutting tax on EVs and battery chargers and leasing of such vehicles. Moreover, the road ministry had proposed an exemption of registration fees for battery-operated vehicles.
In the earlier part of this year, the government had announced an allocation of₹10,000 crore for a period of three years, towards Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles or FAME 2 scheme to expand the commercial EV fleet.
Alongside, the power ministry is also working on a draft tariff policy that will ensure reasonable electricity charges from power distribution companies, power secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla said.
The NITI Aayog, in a meeting last week had served a short notice to two-wheeler and three-wheeler companies to come up with a road-map for transition to elctric mobility.
The effect on the businesses of automobile manufacturers could be calamitous to say the least, if the transition to EVs in India was to be done without proper planning. Consumer discontent along with the immediate unavailability of skilled workers in adequate numbers could hinder the growth of this sector. The people that could be most affected are the ones who are in the service and maintenance business. These are the people who have opened small roadside repair shops and have been in the business for a long time. The limited skills they possess along with the large scale advent of a newer technology unlike the one that they had seen before could hit their livelihood hard. This could yield sour grapes for the people really wanting to adopt the use of EVs.
Two of the leading two-wheeler manufacturers Bajaj Auto and TVS Motor Company said that any plan to ban internal combustion engine three-wheelers and two-wheelers to adopt electric ones by 2025 would be “unrealistic” and “ill-timed” and derail auto manufacturing in the country. This obviously would trickle down to people sustaining on the market for service and maintenance of the automobiles.
TVS Motor Company Chairman Venu Srinivasan said, “To force an unrealistic deadline for mass adoption of electric two and three wheelers, will not just create consumer discontent, it risks derailing auto-manufacturing in India that supports 4 million jobs.”
He also emphasised on the need for a gradual and seamless adoption of EVs in India such that the technology driven disruption is long-lasting and positive.
EVs in India would become the new norm instead of an alternative option in a few decades. For that to happen in a positive and sustainable way India needs to develop three pronged model where the industry shall grow supported by the technology and infrastructure available at home, driven by public demand which itself would grow based on the market, technology and infrastructure available. EVs in India would be a far-fetched dream no more.
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