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Plugging-in India

India plans to make all new cars electric by 2030. Will it work?

For a brief while, Delhi was on the top of the list. The question you’d want to ask next is, which list was that?

In this case, it was the list of cities with the highest amount of air pollution in the world. A thick blanket of smog had covered the city — and stayed there, because there was no rain to bring it down. It was so bad that the government was considering cloud-seeding to create artificial rainfall. And the extra smoke from Diwali firecrackers didn’t help.

The smog problem is not new to the world, and not even to Delhi. One of the main reasons behind it is the number of cars on the road. Delhi has about seven million cars driving around each day, all sending fumes into the air. Almost anyone could point out that the stuff has to go somewhere. They’d be wrong, though.

Instead of going somewhere, a lot of the smog simply remains exactly where it is.

Elsewhere in the world, residents of Beijing often get “Red Alert” messages, warning them to stay indoors because the pollution level is dangerously high. Other cities are not so bad. But they’re getting there. Children are the worst hit, because their heads are at a lower level, where the smog is thicker and more concentrated.

Clearly, something needs to be done. But what?

The first solution that comes to mind is: get the cars off the road. Or at least, reduce their numbers. But that doesn’t work too well, because people have cars for a reason. They won’t be too happy if the have a car but are then told not to use it.

A scheme was tried out in Delhi, and then, briefly, in Paris. Only cars with odd-numbered number plates would be allowed to drive on the roads for one day, and only cars with even-numbered number plates on the next. And so on, alternating every day. It worked pretty well, if you don’t count the car-drivers’ complaints — until people started selling fake number-plates and stickers for people to use.

Luckily, there now seems to be another solution. Instead of getting rid of the cars, why not just get rid of the fumes that come out from them?

That’s exactly what the government-run NITI Aayog, or National Institute for Transforming India, is planning to do. As then Power Minister Piyush Goyal put it in an announcement:

“The idea is that by 2030, not a single petrol or diesel car should be sold in the country.”

So if there are no petrol or diesel cars, what will people drive instead? They can of course use more public transport, or walk and cycle for short distances. But what Piyush Goyal had in mind was something different: Electric Vehicles.

Called EVs for short, electric vehicles are powered by batteries, which run an electric motor similar to the ones in fans and microwaves. That means they give not merely low air-pollution, but actually no air-pollution at all. And because electric motors are much quieter, it’ll also mean less noise pollution — or would, if it wasn’t for all the honking.

But getting the country to switch to electric cars won’t be easy. Firstly, there are very few people using them today. For every six-hundred cars sold in India last (business) year, only one was electric. That’s less than 0.2%. There are only thirteen years left to bring that percentage up to 100.

Oh, and making that many EV sales will need seven times more electric cars than there are in the whole world today.

There are three main issues preventing electric cars from being more widely used in India: a higher price-tag, shortage of charging-points, and the fact that there aren’t many types of electric car available to buy.

Electric cars are pricier than petrol and diesel ones, mainly because of the battery. Batteries are still inefficient to make, so they take up a big chunk of the car’s price. The Mahindra e2O Plus, one of the cheaper EVs, costs about ₹6 lakh — while it’s posible to get non-electric cars that are three times cheaper.

That’s not really a good comparison, though, because using an electric vehicle also means saving on fuel. Of course, the amount you save will depend on how often you use the car, as well as the prices of petrol and electricity. Tamilnadu farmers will have a good time — at least until the government catches on and bans them from using free agricultural power supplies to charge cars.

In any case, estimates have shown that you usually do make savings. Not many people are aware of those savings, however. So if they go to a showroom and see two cars, one electric and one not, they’ll tend to choose the latter even if it turns out more expensive in the long run.

One obvious option here is to give government subsidy. That means the government pays some of the money for electric cars, so people can have them cheaper. But this time, the government plans to do even better. They’ll give tax breaks, so the people selling electric cars don’t have to pay so much tax, but the rest of the operation is to be self-funded.

In fact, the tax breaks will be self-funded to. Switching to electric vehicles, instead of petrol, means the government will save about $60 billion (₹3.89 lakh crore) on the oil it won’t have to import.

Instead of reducing the price, the plan is to sell cars on EMI, or Equal Monthly Instalments. That means people keep sending a fixed amount of money every month until the full price has been paid. That’s a regular method for selling expensive stuff. But in this case, the pricing is also more understandable: you can think of it as the same money that you’re not spending on petrol!

Except that the EMIs will eventually end, while you’ll need to keep buying petrol forever.

Of course, running an EV is not free. There are still electricity charges. But that won’t be much — especially when there’s the more pressing problem of car charges. Or rather, the question: where will you charge your car?

The nice thing about smartphones is that they’ve trained people to keep things charging every night. Electric cars can be charged the same way — you can just plug them into the socket at home.

The problem is, you won’t always be home — specially not while driving around in a car.

Petrol-powered cars have it easy. They’ve been around for so long that you can now find a refuelling station almost anywhere you go. Unfortunately, there are nowhere near that many electric charging points. So, if your car runs out of power in the middle of a journey, you’d better have a spare battery handy. (And you probably won’t seeing that they’re so expensive).

Electric cars also take a long time to charge. They can take upto ten hours at home — so don’t think of walking up to somebody’s house and asking, “Please may I borrow your switchboard?” Even ‘fast-charger’ technology takes at least an hour to complete: much longer than topping up a petrol tank.

Both these problems are being tackled, in different ways. The solution for the first one is simple to think of: set up more charging points. There’s only one catch: who will set them up?

Bengaluru-based electric-only taxis service Lithium Urban Technologies, with a fleet of Mahindra e2Os, ended up having to serve only large companies who could afford to set up charging stations on their campuses.

The situation is slightly better now, with real-estate giant DLF providing EV charging points at its Saket mall, along with a 50% parking discount for battery-powered cars. Meanwhile, Mahindra has teamed up with the Gopalan Malls chain to have charging stations at all its branches. They can afford to give free charging, since it’s nothing compared to the electricity the rest of the mall uses.

Charging stations are being set up outside of Bengaluru as well. The Plug In India initiative lists 222 of them across the country. That shows there’s still a lot of work to be done, but the number has been growing fast. Hopefully, with government encouragement, it’ll start growing even faster.

The second problem was the one of charge time. Battery technology has been progressing slowly, but there’s one workaround. Why wait for a battery to change when you can just put in a new one?

That’s where SUN Mobility comes in. Co-founded by Chetan Maini, the man behind India’s first electric car, it is working on a standard battery size for all cars to use. Then, all you’ll have to do is go to a ‘battery swapping’ station, give up your battery, and replace it with a fresh one. The empty battery can then be recharged and kept for the next person to use.

At this point, we should stop and ask: where is all the electricity going to come from? If all the electricity is going to come from diesel generators, then it doesn’t solve the problem of pollution at all. It just moves the pollution to a different place.

Of course, it’s unlikely that many charging stations will use diesel generators. But what they will use is the main electricity grid. And the main electricity grid relies heavily on coal. Which is notorious for the pollution it causes in the atmosphere. Not only does coal pollute the atmosphere, it also leaves behind a lot of waste—and pollutes the land where it was mined, to boot.

The Electric Vehicle Association of Canada has found that EVs are more pollution-free, even if they’re charged completely from coal. But India is not Canada, and the coal-fired plants are much less efficient.

Luckily, according to another NITI Aayog blueprint, India is going to start slowly doing away with coal. In fact, no new coal-fired power plants will be built till 2027, and they plan to make 56% of the country’s electricity come from renewable power sources by then.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of areas in the country which have low or erratic access to the electricity grid. For that, Piyush Goyal stated that they are “looking at off-grid solutions” until those villages get connected to the main supply.

Electric-car pioneer Tesla, on the other hand, has other ideas. They plan to eventually make all car-charging off the grid, preferably with something like solar energy. That way, the EVs could become more environment-friendly even before the rest of the electricity-grid does. The only thing is that their plans are currently only for the USA, where they are based.

Hopefully, off-grid solutions will become common in India too, even though it’s not part of the government’s plan. Solar farms can only take you so far, and a lot of generated power will get lost in transmission. Electricity wires are notoriously ‘leaky’, and a lot of energy gets lost while travelling over long distances.

If people make use of solar charging points now, they’ll know where their power is coming from, and where exactly it’s going. And can be sure it’s 100% pollution-free (except for old discarded solar-panels, of course).

That’ll also be very useful in areas with lot of power cuts. Grid-connected charging-stations will all go down when the current goes. If they’re off-grid instead, you can just go to the next station if the first one is out of power.

And now, we have just one issue left: the problem of not enough electric vehicles available to buy. But if the other problems get solved, this one might well turn out not to be a problem at all.

Already, large companies like Nissan and Tesla are planning to bring their EVs to the Indian market. Nearer home, Mahindra is also developing its electric fleet. As electric cars become more popular, more people will want to buy them. So more companies will start making more electric models to sell to those people.

That’s the government’s plan. It’s all worked out here, but there’s still a lot of actual work to be done.

Will India’s cars really become electric-only by 2030? Only time will tell. But car buyers, and people like you and me who spread the message, can help time decide what to say.

Ready for more? This week at Snipette, we’re running a whole series on electric cars. We’ll be covering a glimpse of what other countries are doing, diving into a bit of history, and more besides. So, be sure to check back again tomorrow!

Have something to say? At Snipette, we encourage questions, comments, corrections and clarifications — even if they are something that can be easily Googled! Or you can simply click on the ‘👏 clap’ button, to tell us how much you liked reading this.

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Badri Sunderarajan

Badri Sunderarajan

Books reader, Websites coder, Drawings maker. Things writer. Occasional astronomer. Alleged economist. Editor@Snipette.