India accounted for 14 cities in the list of 15 most polluted cities released by the World Health Organization last month. Kanpur, Patna, Gwalior, Varanasi, Lucknow or New Delhi and its satellite towns Gurgaon and Faridabad figure on these lists so frequently that it does not come as a surprise anymore. The government, aware of the risks this poses to citizens' health, has set ambitious targets for e, two-wheelers, trucks, buses and pretty much anything that runs on wheels. Apart from improving air quality, this will also help it reduce the high dependence on crude oil imports. Every year, India imports more than 80 per cent of its crude oil requirement (220 million tonnes in 2017/18). The crude oil import bill of $88 billion in 2017/18 accounted for a quarter of all our imports. Almost 40 per cent of this is used by the transport industry. According to the International Energy Agency, India's demand for oil is projected to more than double to 458 million tonnes by 2040. To avoid the potential damage to its fiscal calculations that this may cause if oil prices rise, India has set a target of reducing oil imports by 10 per cent by 2022. This is where electric vehicles step in. According to a report by the Niti Aayog and Rocky Mountain Institute, a reduction of 156 million tonnes of oil equivalent worth `3.9 lakh crore is possible if by 2030 electric vehicles account for 40 per cent of two-wheelers, cars and SUVs and 100 per cent commercial vehicles and three-wheelers.
"Import of oil and the resultant outgo of foreign exchange have been major problems for all governments in India. A shift towards electric vehicles can dramatically alter that," says Tarun Mehta, CEO and co-founder, Ather Energy. "Either as incremental volumes or as replacement vehicles, the more the number of e-vehicles that hit the roads, the more will be the reduction in our import bill."
The impact on environment would be less intangible but probably more significant. At two million kilotons, India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the US. Cities in northern parts of the country that are land locked and so don't receive coastal winds are some of the most polluted in the world. In Delhi, for instance, pollution due to particulate matter regularly exceeds the WHO limits by a factor of 7-12. Vehicular emissions are considered to be one of the major contributors to poor ambient air conditions. According to an IIT Kanpur report - Source Apportionment Study of PM 2.5 and PM 10 emissions - in Delhi, vehicles account for an average of 25 per cent PM 2.5 emissions, going up to 36 per cent in winters. Pollution due to suspended particulate matter from vehicles is even higher at 40 per cent. With no tail pipe emissions, electric vehicles can drastically alter the scenario. As per a study done by the United Nations Environment Program and IIM Ahmedabad in November 2014, in a low carbon scenario where EV penetration is the highest, PM 2.5 emissions will fall below half the current levels by 2035.
All this, however, would come to naught if electricity to power these vehicles is produced by damaging the environment. In India, 65 per cent of electricity produced is thermal. Of this, an estimated 57 per cent is from coal, considered the most polluting. Charging cars with electricity produced by coal-based power plants may negate the benefits of zero tail pipe emissions. Some even say it will be more polluting than using Euro VI conventional petrol or diesel engines.
"If the source of electricity that powers the car is not clean, does it really matter if there are no tail pipe emissions?," says Roland Folger, Managing Director and CEO, Mercedes Benz India.
The answer to this could lie in the push towards renewable energy. The government has set an ambitious target of generating 175 gigawatt (GW) power through renewable energy sources such as solar and wind by 2022. The current renewable capacity is 58 GW. The dependence on coal-based power may not go away in a hurry - 50 GW fresh coal-based capacity is also under construction - but given the thrust on renewable power, a future where electric cars run on electricity produced without polluting the environment may not be that implausible.
There are other challenges too such as inadequate charging infrastructure. There are only about 200 charging stations in the country today compared with over 60,000 fossil fuel stations. So, 100 per cent EV penetration by 2030, initially targeted by the government, reads like a fairytale. Yet, the wheel is turning.
New Delhi-based Energy Efficiency Services Ltd, a joint venture of four power PSUs - NTPC, REC, PFC and Powergrid - last year came out with a 10,000-unit tender for electric cars for bureaucrats. In the first phase, it procured 500 cars, e-Tigor and e-Verito, from Tata Motors and M&M, respectively. Earlier this year, it announced another tender of the same size. Though it is behind schedule by almost a year, the automobile companies are not sitting idle. Tata Motors and Mahindra recently signed MoUs with the government of Maharashtra to deploy 1,000 electric vehicles - cars, SUVs and CVs - in the state. These are small numbers but it is a start. Others, such as market leader Maruti that has tied up with Toyota, Hyundai, Ford and Honda, have also drawn up plans to introduce electric versions of their cars.
In charging also, the private sector is taking the lead. EV start-up Ather Energy, which is primarily working on launching a range of electric scooters, is setting up a chain of charging points in Bangalore. It aims to set up at least 60 of them by the end of this year so that a charging point is available to any city consumer within a four-kilometre radius.
Similarly, Chetan Maini, who launched India's first electric car, Reva, back in the 90s, has launched the country's first swappable battery platform for electric two- and three-wheelers. It comprises modular smart batteries that are intelligent enough to customise themselves according to each vehicle type and versatile enough to be used in combinations.
At some point in time, things will come together and EVs will proliferate. The bigger challenge then would be to make national electric grid adapt to the new reality. A few months ago, half a dozen electric cabs being tried out by an established taxi aggregator in Nagpur were put on charge simultaneously. This led to collapse of the electric grid and raised questions on whether the grid is flexible enough for peak power output when tens and thousands if not millions of electric vehicles are charged simultaneously around the country?
"EVs could add up to 50 per cent to peak demand and 3 percentage points to peak demand growth between 2017 and 2030. The key challenge for the grid with EVs will, therefore, not be aggregate electricity units but rather 'when' and 'where' the demand is generated," says a report by independent research firm Brookings India. "Issues of supply capacity being concentrated at local distribution transformer or even substation level with significant EV population will have to be looked at before any large-scale roll out. EVs are unlike any other conventional load that the grid has been used to. Their disproportionately large impact on peak demand compared to electricity units requires significant peaking and distribution capacity head-room that risks severe underutilisation and, therefore, unviability."
The normal grid loads have an annual aggregate load capacity to effective capacity used factor of nearly five; for EVs, the report says, this can vary between 80 and 160. Total electricity demand for EVs may, therefore, vary between 37 and 97 Terra Watt hours under 33 per cent and 100 per cent penetration, respectively, by 2030. EV deployment under both scenarios will bring volatility to instantaneous demand. If the grid cannot support it, it will be a repeat of Nagpur across the country, many times over.
On paper, nothing is cleaner than an electric car. But the promise of pure air will be a false dawn if the grid is not ready or electricity not clean enough.