Discussion: India’s Curious Electric Vehicles Push

History has a particular way of treating naysayers. They were the experts of that era that did “not see it coming”; they were the intellectuals who were humbled by the doers. A bit of schadenfreude, after all, makes for interesting reading.

However, at the risk of being proven wrong at a later date, ambitious policies require thorough critiques. The news of one such ambitious policy landed on a discussion group of energy industry professionals and researchers.

The main headline on page 1 of the Economic Times on the 25th of April, 2017 screamed:

“Govt Plans Electrifying Policy Push to E-Vehicles”

Screenshots of the full article are provided at the end of this piece. Here are the highlights of the upcoming policy, as reported in the article:

  1. “India will soon embark on an ambitious programme aimed at switching most, if not all, of its vehicles to battery power by 2030.”
  2. “In an audacious move worthy of Elon Musk, the key to the plan’s success will be eschewing of subsidies driven by a battery leasing strategy.”
  3. “The scheme, which kicks off in he next few months, includes limited tax breaks for manufacturers and the sale of vehicles without batteries to improve affordability, said a senior government official with knowledge of the plan.”
  4. “To all vehicle fleet by 2030 without battery, discharged battery can be swapped for a recharged one.”
  5. “Two wheelers, three wheelers and non-AC city buses will be sold without batteries, therefore slashing costs by up to 70%. The batteries will be leased at a specific cost and can be swiftly swapped with recharged ones at stations…”
  6. “It will take just two and a half minutes to replace auto batteries and can be done in 10 minutes after city buses rest after a 30 km trip…”

This sounds great… on paper. What’s not to like: swappable batteries, cheap electric cars, saying goodbye to petroleum based engines. Except, of course, not everyone sees it this way.

The discussion among professionals in the energy sector is as follows. Do note that the discussion was based on a lead newspaper article, and not a government notification. We do not — yet — know the specifics of the policy.

Siddharth Singh (Visting Fellow, Wupptertal Institute, Germany): This reminds me of the government claiming last year that they will clean the Ganga river up by 2018. And the uncritical media coverage that followed.

Mudit Chordia (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden): Even the best grids in the US have an operational lifecycle emission breakeven of 7–8 years. Assuming they drive the same miles. Best grids as in clean source of electricity. We have a coal based primarily. At best this is a transfer of burden.

Assuming we manage to clean up the source, what are they going to do about all the batteries after their lifetime? Its like we are okay being a dumping ground.

Good luck sourcing and producing so much Lithium. Assuming of course they are going to be Li based.

Swati D’Souza (The Energy and Resources Institute, India): Doesn’t the battery form a major component of the cost of e-vehicles? Therefore without the battery the price of one such would anyway be lower?

Mudit: Yes. I missed that actually in my rant. But the costs of battery are dropping fast. Again, maybe there is an assumption that we will have the same battery technology as some of the best.

Aayushi Awasthy (The Energy and Resources Institute, India): I don’t think it’s a bad idea. Unbundling the commodity is always a good thing. That was if the problem is with high cost battery, there can be mass procurement (EESL style) to bring the cost down without involving end use consumers in the process. I know our grid is coal based now but it is expected to increase RE (renewable energy) uptake rapidly. In fact, there are some peeps who see EVs (electric vehicles) as a way to balance the grid if you can figure out a model to predict charging time. This particular model may work. Also, I crunched some numbers on this and to enable EVs the emissions from transport will increase by a cumulative 5–6 MT over 2020 to 2030 before eventually settling down and reducing.

Sarbojit Pal (Energy and Transport Consultant): No one is debating EVs as a potential game changer for India. It is going to perhaps be the single largest transition that the transport sector is going to witness over the next 5 years. But my issues are with the political and operational elements of the roadmap.

On the more technical note of battery swapping, it hasn’t worked across the world for a multitude of reasons. It’s been tried in the US, Israel and Japan and has been a miserable failure. Primary reason is that the batteries and the slots within vehicles have to become standardized. With multitude of manufacturers with differentiated products and consumers demanding different designs it’s impractical to think the idea will work. Think if all cellphones were to have the same batteries.. would that idea work? The charging infra however surely ought to be similar. However the government hasn’t started drafting out the common standards in that regard.

Even if the standardized batteries were thought about only for buses, it would be impractical. The bus batteries, even if they are Li-On are over a quarter of the weight of the bus! Who will install that battery after every run? And then the wear and tear on the ever so sensitive battery packs.. that would impact their life.

Aayushi: I see, practical problems then. I did not know about the battery dimension. Technological barriers notwithstanding, the idea of selling the car minus battery seems good to me. And then the battery can be forever rented. Of course 30 km is not viable.

Siddharth: The idea has been tried and tested, and it has failed repeatedly. This is great on paper but when regular charging is very quick and when mileage is improving so rapidly, battery changing infrastructure and standardisation costs will actually hold the sector back.

Aayushi: Wait, so you re saying owning battery is better? Because I am only talking about renting or owning.

Swati: Isn’t owning and having a standardized battery charging station more optimal?

Aayushi: Owning or renting, you will need a standardized charging infrastructure. I just don’t see how is owning it optimal.

Siddharth: An EV company is basically a company that has mastered the battery (by software and hardware). If batteries are standardised across the sector, then battery improvements will slow down for the whole sector.

Anyway, think of the best battery we have right now: Tesla’s Model S can go from Delhi to Jaipur… and then from Jaipur to Ajmer… all in one charge. And it takes some 20 minutes of super charging to get another 50% battery topped off.

This is for their best available car. Policy action should try to ensure that this technology trickles down to cheaper cars in 10 years, instead of unambitious low mileage battery swaps.

Aayushi: Okay. But how does this preclude renting? I mean they can still rent the battery, how will that change any of this? Also, your first point sounds like an industry that has not been regulated enough. At what point are they doing this just to improve battery and at what point is it to keep monopolistic profits?

Mudit: I would differ on that. EVs rely on two resources that are limited.

One is the rare earth elements that we don’t have the technology to recycle, yet based on my recent literature review are not close to either. And secondly the fossil fuels used to extract them. So in a sense you are using up 2 resources that we are fast running out of.

Just like gasoline cars even the EVs have a limited life as you cannot go on recharging the battery forever. They eventually die out. Maybe the EVs might last a little longer. But the fact that you end up using the resources like REE, we would be back to square one in a couple of decades.

I think the way to go about would be to reduce the performance envelop of cars in general. They are highly over designed for performance that we neither need nor are legally allowed to exploit.

Sarbojit: Mudit, I think your points are extremely pertinent. The issue of REE (rare earth elements) availability is almost always brushed under the carpet whenever I have raised the same in discussions. Would be extremely helpful if you could share the literature review that you might have done on the issue. What I am made to understand is that the overall REE requirement for a few million vehicles should not even move the needle for REE, which I find hard to believe, but haven’t found the time to debate. Would look to hear from you on this.

Aayushi: How are the current electric busses working? I know DTC has added a few to the fleet . How often do they change battery?

Sarbojit: They dont have any.

Aayushi: I have seen them with my own eyes.

Sarbojit: Two test buses that were tried for a week on loan from BYD (a Chinese company).

Siddharth: I think they shouldn’t go for battery based electric buses to the extent possible.

In Europe, many cities have electric Trolleybuses. They are buses that run with an attached electric line on top. They’re cheaper than battery buses, and unlike trams, they can move about independently, so it will work in Indian traffic conditions.

Rohit Vedhara (Aum Energy, India): Pune Municipal Corporation seems anti-batteries as they reckon it will be a nightmare to charge thousands of buses every day and night, so looking for a cleaner fuel versus diesel, which is where I came into the conversation. The points above about practicality are well noted, although I think Trolleybuses and trucks won’t get beyond quaint Euro Cities.

Sarbojit: We had them successfully operating in the super congested Calcutta. Now, of course, the politics has changed and they have decided to do away with them.

Aayushi: I agree. A long time ago, Sarbojit made a good observation that when we talk of metro, no one cared of the cost. But when we talk of buses which are way cheaper, people start talking about cost.

Siddharth: Yep, ultimately, the solution to our pollution problem will be led by public transport.


Annexure: Full article.