E-vehicles or e-mobility?

India has unique reasons for faster adoption of electric vehicles, but we need to be bold and aggressive in our plans

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Tuesday 03 October 2017

India's transport minister Nitin Gadkari recently threw the cat among the pigeons. He told a gathering of automobile industry executives that he would not hesitate to “bulldoze” his way to alternative fuels in the country. “Whether you like it or not” India will move to electric and biomass-fuelled vehicles in the “interest of pollution and saving on fuel import bills”. This statement, made at the annual convention of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), sent shock waves in the powerful industry. “We are already doing more than necessary to make transitions to cleaner vehicle technology,” they said.

The fact is that our automobile industry cries too much about policy uncertainty. The industry has had a roadmap for the transition to cleaner fuel but it either ignored the roadmap or whittled it down to make it weak. When it could not do so, it cried murder. For instance, BS-IV standards for fuel and emissions had come into India in 2010. They were to be implemented across the country by March 2017. But the industry, instead of preparing for it, believed that the cleaner fuel would not be available and they would continue selling BS-III vehicles beyond the deadline. It was not allowed to do so. Shock.

All in all, carmakers have refused to read the writing on the wall that pollution is a genuine and serious public health concern in the country. This is not policy uncertainty. This is about their blindness to public debate and public policy.

Against this backdrop, Gadkari’s policy leadership on electric and alternative-fuel vehicles is exciting. The question now should be what needs to be done to drastically increase the share of cleaner vehicles on our roads. Also remember that we have unique reasons for faster adoption of electric vehicles. Our vehicle ownership is still minuscule, particularly if you count cars. In Delhi, for instance, it is estimated that roughly 21 per cent people own cars and some 40 per cent own motorcycles. The 2011 Census found that roughly 10 per cent of urban Indians owned a car. All in all, a large section is yet to move to vehicle ownership, so it can motorise differently.

Our e-vehicle imperative is also different. In the rest of the motorised world, e-vehicles are finding it difficult to compete with cleaner and much more fuel-efficient modern cars. We cannot ignore that e-vehicles, if they use fossil energy—that is, coal or even natural gas used in power plants—will displace carbon dioxide generation but not replace it. In other words, there will still be pollution, but it will no longer come from the tail-pipe of a car, but the smokestack of a power plant. But e-vehicles provide solutions to local air pollution, which we desperately need. As the minister said, they will also reduce the fuel import bill.

It is for this reason that we need to be bold and aggressive about our e-vehicle plans. Till recently, the Indian government’s policy was lackluster, to put it politely. Earlier this year, my colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment had put out a detailed analysis of the first phase of the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicle (FAME) programme. They found that the incentive scheme had willy-nilly pushed mild diesel hybrid cars in the name of notching up numbers in electro-mobility. As much as 60 per cent of the FAME incentives had been cornered by private cars that were neither electric nor strong hybrids.

Since then much has changed. The revised FAME programme will not incentivise mild hybrids. It also puts the thrust on electric buses, which have the big potential to change not just vehicles, but mobility.

This is where the nub is. Most Indians do not drive personal vehicles. The opportunity is to think big so that we do not first move to cars and then back to bicycles. Instead we must combine the programmes for both clean vehicles and public transport vehicles. For instance, there is the option of light rail in cities—the old tram we have discarded. It works on electricity. Then there is the option of fleets of buses running on dedicated e-wired highways so that they can be charged on the move or at dedicated points. This, combined with e-mobility for last mile connectivity, will change life on the move, for the better.

This requires careful thinking. The first big issue is to find ways of driving down the cost of this public infrastructure or ways of paying for it. One option is to use large-scale public procurement as was done in the case of LED lights. The other option is to build differently so that the cost of fuel—in this case, battery—is not linked to the cost of the vehicle. In this way, we buy the car and then swap batteries as we go around or someday do away with them altogether.

If we plan for e-mobility, not e-vehicles, our answers and options will change. This is the opportunity. Let’s not miss the bus this time.

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  • Your stated (1) that e vehicles that use fossil energy displace carbon dioxide generation but not replace (2) there will still be pollution, but it will no longer come from the tail-pipe of a car, but the smokestack of a power plant. UNQUOTE. Your statement is not taking the full emerging scenario. Firstly e vehicles can be charged from chargers fixed at 'solar homes'.. Secondly the power can come from panels on car (Ford C Max) as well as from batteries and the power for the batteries need not be assumed to be fossil based. Thirdly carports can have solar panels and chargers to charge the batteries of parked cars from Sun direct. Fourthly with more and more power coming from RE, the batteries of e vehicles will naturally be charged with non fossil power. The focus, data, trend and research is only in this direction. The answer to your question is to produce more power from RE and also stop using polluting gas (petrol / diesel) vehicles however efficient they can be.

    Posted by: Venkat | 2 years ago | Reply
    • E-vehicles are electrically charged.....while the electricity is generated in power plants, not solar panels. i hope that helps u to grab the essence of the article

      Posted by: Roy | 2 years ago | Reply
      • All know EVs are electrically charged. The power for the EV batteries come from power source which source need not be from power plants as you say and from power plants based on fossil fuels as the learned author projects. You can charge your car from your roof top solar system by attaching a charger in your garage. Same way you can have SPVM on top of your carport and attach a charger there to charge your car battery.. Contrary to what you say, more and more electricity is generated in power plants consists of millions of solar panels like that in Adani solar power plant in Kamudhi and the Solar Park at Kurnool. GOI fixed the target for generation of power beyond 100 GW by 2022 (60% solar (panel) power plants and 40% from roof top solar panels). In 2017 India will exceed 20 GW of power mostly from power plants with solar panels only. In my opinion, the author knows all these but somehow hides the path EV - power source - roof top and solar based power plants. For obvious reasons she projects EV - power source - fossil based power plants.

        Posted by: Venkat | 2 years ago | Reply
  • Well said but let us keep in view the fact that one will need lot of roof or other space to mount solar panels to generate enough solar power. There are limitations arising from the free space available on the terraces and the roof load for which the terraces may have been designed. Assuming that one is able to charge the car battery overnight at home, what about charging facilities on the roads? Charging stations for quick charging while on the road could be one possibility but will take a few hours to charge. Swapping of discharged batteries with charged ones at the battery swapping stations could offer some relief.

    The proposal to have panel mounted vehicles seems technically possible but one will have to provide extra length to provide enough space for the panels to produce adequate amount of electricity. Much work need so be done to make it a workable reality. The possibility that car mounted panels would produce enough electricity to meet the running needs as well as provide extra charge to the batteries also needs to be further developed to make it a workable reality.

    I fully agree that only way forward is to replace existing polluting vehicles with e-vehicles but am only trying to understand how far we are from our goal (not for 1 or 2 or even 100 cities or for a few countries but for the entire globe) and how much time it will take to get there to save the Planet from the rising emissions and resultant climate change and temperature rise. Hope we have that much time!!!

    What will happen to the increasing investments being made to set up new or augment capacity of existing refineries and to the oil / gas producing countries?

    Posted by: A K Tandon | 2 years ago | Reply
  • Good Afternoon - I'm curious to understand the consequences / study conducted about the pollution / health hazard that will get created using solar power. Imagine a situation of solar panels everywhere and am curious if someone has done any study on the impact on humans with these rays reflecting on people everyday (Especially the any health hazard like the salt industry where people have color blindness problems with the continous exposure to white color.). Please comment. Thanks, Rangarajan

    Posted by: Rangarajan | 2 years ago | Reply
  • If Gadkari and Modi are listening, perhaps we could make a beginning with our SMART cities? This year?

    Posted by: VINAY | 2 years ago | Reply
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    Posted by: Pest Control For House | 2 years ago | Reply