How A Dependable Charging Infrastructure Will Set The Pace For India’s EV Journey

  • User-friendly, safe and convenient charging infrastructure will decide the pace of our EV journey.This will involve removing many roadblocks – as also mind blocks.

A question repeatedly posed to high-profile attendees of the Global Mobility Summit in Delhi as they alighted from their cars to enter the venue was, if they used electric cars to come to the venue? Good question, given that electric vehicles (EVs) are dominating the current mobility discourse, with the summit also being seen as potentially a big launch-pad for the EV ecosystem in India.

It was a good occasion for the policymakers to demonstrate their faith in EVs – for NITI Aayog, in particular, the main organiser of the event. But to answer the question – no they hadn’t. However, neither this nor the fact that the summit wound up without laying out a road for EVs, must be seen as indications of any slackening on the EV front.

If it makes one feel better, there are such examples elsewhere as well. The electric car-backing Welsh government, too, for instance, uses diesel vehicles, as this BBC article says: “Not a single electric or hybrid car has been owned or leased by the Welsh government in the last five years, despite policies promoting their use.”

Again, in June this year, senior government officials in Delhi had refused to use electric cars because of their low mileage. Livemint reported the reason as failure of two models by Tata Motors and M&M to run even 82 kilometres on a single charge. Then, Bloomberg reported that inadequate charging infrastructure and “slowness of states in taking deliveries” had led EESL (Energy Efficiency Services Limited) to postpone the second tender of 9,500 cars by one year.. EESL is the nodal agency that coordinates procurement of e-vehicles between auto companies and government departments and states.

Zeroing-In On Zero-Emission Vehicles

Sluggishness in embracing this change is probably a given, and one that NITI Aayog is aware of. And yet, the change must come, for road transport is one of the biggest causes of air pollution in our cities, the effects of which are felt immediately by citizens, because of proximity to vehicles, and also because fossil-fuel-driven vehicles impact climate change, apart from increasing our import bills.

NITI Aayog is, therefore, on a drive to urge and push states to adopt EV policies – suggesting ways, setting carbon-footprint targets, and instructions on how to go about it.

States have been enthusiastic and many have experimented, too, through subsidised vehicles under the central government’s FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles). But now, taking that further, adopting and sticking with it, is what matters.

Even though FAME-I was a success, it finally ended up subsidising mostly a category of vehicles called ‘mild hybrids’, which experts say are actually diesel vehicles in disguise – mostly passenger cars and scooters. Though they were removed from the programme in April 2017, they had by then taken up 60 per cent of the funds reserved.

FAME II, to be announced soon, is reportedly going to focus on public transport. All consultancy organisations like EY, KPMG etc, emphasise that bus fleets and commercial vehicles like cab aggregators, and two-wheelers and three-wheelers, are the areas where electric energy is best deployed in the Indian scenario. In this article, we focus on buses – because they are “public transport” and because they are part of the category which is the largest contributor to emissions.

Meanwhile, the experience with states in deploying e-vehicles till now shows a particular trend: good receptivity, positive statements of intention extolling advantages of zero emissions, carbon footprint, et al. But, it is mostly a sputtering start which often converts into a wait-and-watch mode. Several states are also yet to overcome the initial inertia, apparently needing greater force of push by the Centre.

Positive News Pouring In

NITI Aayog’s increased gusto, post the summit is beginning to show results though, and the states appear to be getting bulldozed.

Last week, Jharkhand inducted a fleet of 20 e-cars for official use, having already set up 12 charging stations. Uttarakhand has already received 20 electric cars, for which rent will be paid to EESL. Gurugram has said it would add 400 e-buses by mid-2019; Gurugram will also procure 25 cars for its officials. Transport Minister of Tamil Nadu, after visiting London to understand the operation of electric buses, has announced that 80 buses will be run in Chennai and 20 in Coimbatore. Similar plans were made earlier this year by the governments of Goa, West Bengal, Assam, and Kerala. Many of them had done trial runs with one or more buses, and were optimistic to begin with.

Some Comi-Tragic E-tales

However, often the calibration and rolling out is not visualised when announcements and plans are made. This happened with Karnataka – the first state to launch an EV policy – whose initial plans included procuring 40 buses, 100 four-wheelers and 500 three-wheelers under FAME. This year, the state budget 2018-19 announced that out of the 4,236 new buses to be procured, 80 would be electric,and 100 charging stations would be built. The Union government was giving a subsidy of Rs 1 crore per bus, out of the total cost of Rs 2.5 crore.

In July, however, BMTC decided that it was not comfortable with the clause of being joint owner of the buses (which is a requisite), and said it wanted none of the responsibilities of being an owner – that the private operator only must bear the liabilities and risks. Last week, Bangalore Mirror reported that the state’s transport minister intended scrapping the tender as he wanted BMTC to purchase the buses and not take them on lease – much to the exasperation of BMTC, whose officials said nine months’ efforts had all gone waste. Currently, the corporation has two buses, and the journey forward is quite unclear.

A similar volte face was done by Telangana. In January this year, it announced that an EV policy – which included manufacturing incentives – would be out soon. In June, an event to announce the same was cancelled last minute.

Reportedly, the Chief Minister had decided to research more on the subject before taking a call. The state government had originally announced procuring 40 buses for deployment in SRTC. Hyderabad is one of the six lighthouse cities chosen by NITI Aayog for its EV roll out – as of this month there are five buses on its roads. Telangana, in fact, had its draft policy ready in 2017, with impressive figures of investments and employment. But many didn’t take it seriously, as a veteran in battery manufacturing said: “What can we expect from a state policy? The draft policy was a joke.”

Kolkata was to get 80 e-buses “before Durga Puja, as a gift to the city dwellers,” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced earlier this year. As of September, less than a month away from Durga Puja, it has one bus running since May.

In the case of Andhra Pradesh, it appears to be EESL that is playing safe. The state government, true to Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s style, was raring to go and had ordered 100 vehicles; however, only 30 have been assured by EESL for now. Perhaps, the realistic stance of the EESL is to do with the state’s slow progress on charging infrastructure. As against the plan of 50 charging stations, and a letter of award to the infrastructure company for 19 to be delivered within six weeks, only the first was commissioned recently.

Delhi had an interesting twist in the EV tale, when in July this year, the Supreme Court found its plan to procure 1,000 electric buses “deficient” in planning. The bench advised the Delhi government “not to be in a hurry, and have a solid plan”, complete with details of funds, land for depots, charging stations, etc. And, consider the possibility of using Hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses which are said to be cost-effective as compared to EVs.

In fact, the apex court’s observation clinches it: most states’ plans currently fall in this category – deficient in planning.

Charging Infrastructure Needs Ignition

What’s the reason for the slow uptake? Charging infrastructures should be ready before EV penetration can go up; yet, infrastructure requires massive costs as investments, and economies of scale are reached only through adequate demand – which again depends on the number of vehicles on the road. This has been termed as a classic chicken-and-egg situation, and FAME II is expected to focus on this need.

Charging Infrastructure – Costs

Charging infrastructure includes charging stations at homes and workplaces, and in public places like petrol pumps, parking lots and malls. The total investment includes cost of equipment and installation and cost of operation and maintenance. A workshop at IIT Kanpur in May this year had a detailed paper from the director of Centre of Advanced Research in Electrified Transportation, AMU, on ‘Business of Charging Infrastructure for EVs’. Among the many technical and financial details, these were the costs it assumed. For semi-private/semi-public places, where low or medium power level chargers are required, the cost is between Rs 36,431 and Rs 87,435; and for public places where high power level chargers are required, installation cost is higher at Rs 1,74,871-Rs 2,62,306. To that, a 10-per cent operation and maintenance cost is to be added.

Given the huge requirement of charging stations – estimates have it that Delhi alone will require around 800-1,000; China has over 2 lakh, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report – the funds requirement is colossal. The central government has been funding projects in cities, with a large kitty set aside for this, apart from easing procedures and requirements, but will that be enough?

Charging Infrastructure – Technical Considerations

  • Besides costs and subsidies, there are other technical and practical considerations in charging infrastructure. The above study under the IIT Kanpur aegis, had concluded that power distribution network needs to be planned properly, which means:
  • Layout of charging stations will need to be such that electricity demand is in accordance with the network;
  • Within the distribution network, improved quality connections with high ratings are required – to facilitate interconnection of charging infrastructure
  • Larger-capacity distribution transformer and larger-cross-section distribution lines are needed to avoid problems like overloading, voltage deviation, etc.

Yet. After all this, it may still result in lower utilisation efficiency of distribution network equipment – because charging behaviour cannot be confined to low-load periods. Apparently, power quality of the network is affected because devices in the charging infrastructure do something called “inducing harmonics in the source side content”. Technical jargon, but surely has a point!

Finally, though not pessimistic on EVs in toto, this study did say that simply shifting to EVs will not address the impact on environment.

Charging Infrastructure – Practical Considerations

Thus far, due to policy and money constraints, charging stations and other infrastructure are not widely deployed. EV charging requires a long process. Most charging points in the country are AC-based, which can take up to six hours to charge; DC chargers are efficient, but also expensive.

This `wait anxiety’ is an important factor for consumers – a lack of adequate infrastructure means long queues at each station, apart from the fact that battery charging is time-consuming in itself. It also means traffic congestion as people queue up to charge. Battery swapping is the solution here, that is to get a fully-charged battery, which can be done in few minutes at stations, and move on. However, for this solution to become workable, the IIT Kanpur study points out – first, batteries need to conform to certain standards, and they need to be of “high-mileage variety, have high energy density, high recycling ratio, high recovery ratio, and be environment-friendly”.

The government’s plan includes setting up 30,000 slow-charging and 15,000 fast-charging stations across the country – every 3 km in the city, and every 50 km on highways.

Charging Infrastructure – Many Other Considerations

Much ground needs to be covered as far as electricity generation goes: over 60 per cent of India’s energy mix still comes from fossil fuels, and only 17 per cent from renewables. In that sense, electrical charging is still not guilt-free in terms of being low-carbon. BHEL is in the process of developing and providing solar-based charging infrastructure, but though it’s light on the horizon, it’s still a work-in-progress.

Himachal Pradesh, one of the first states to include EVs in its bus fleet, had a good experience generally and decided to place an order for 25 e-buses. But again, as the chief general manager of its SRTC pointed out that there was a high dependence on third party for charging infrastructure, which compounded costs.

What complicates the issue is that land for charging stations needs clearances from local authorities, electricity distribution companies and the central ISI quality standards approval. Only then will it be given on lease to willing infra provider companies, which is a long-winded, if not tall, order.

Finally, the safety aspect. At one of the sessions in a CII Conference for EV manufacturers, Goenka Electric Motor CEO Zafar Equbal had put forth his reservations thus: “A person can bear a shock up to 60 volts of electricity; but in a high-voltage system like a charging station, the slightest negligence can bring about death. Even stray animals making any accidental contact can create havoc. There are many practical challenges.”

User-friendly, safe and convenient charging infrastructure – and, which is also perceived as such – will decide the pace of our EV journey. This will involve removing many roadblocks – as also mind blocks.

Subsidies All The Way

It’s unlikely that EVs will be adopted without insistence, handholding and funding from the Centre. It’s not quite clear what CEO, NITI Aayog, Amitabh Kant meant when he said that “I’m against a policy where you drive electric vehicles through large subsidies; That’s not sustainable.”

The fact is, world over, EVs are run only on subsidies.

This article attributes the success of Norway, the world leader in EVs to a long list of incentives for the buyers. The irony is despite that, users say they prefer to have two cars – one EV to drive to work and one fossil-fuel car for other trips. Also, this is despite Norway’s advantages of being a wealthier country with a smaller population, less congested roads, easier parking and plentiful hydroelectric power – all of which India does not have.

So also in China which has the twin advantages of being the world’s largest maker of electric cars as well as lithium-ion batteries. Yet, its rapid growth has been made possible only by its subsidies to manufacturers as well as consumers.. And after all this, the environmental benefits still remain questionable in China, with almost three-fourths of its power coming from coal.

Indian policymakers are depending on falling costs of battery, increases in renewables in electricity, new developments in the Indian R&D scene, and the costs of EV being at par with ICE engines in a few years. These are all of course, assumptions. The environmental impact of the substitute technology also must be quantified, along with an employment road map for the automobiles and components sector.

Shifting lanes, towards EVs is in currency, but perhaps, in our context, moderation is key. While we must not get left behind and definitely give it a shot, it must be accompanied by a large dose of prudence.

A Fast-Changing World

Several other technologies are coming up. Like the Supreme Court suggested to the Delhi government, Hydrogen fuel is one of them, with Germany and Japan having adopting it in varying measures. CEPT Ahmedabad had come out with a paper on solar-powered buses earlier; passenger drones have become a reality. Closer home, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari had recently talked of using bio-fuel. Biofuel-driven buses have been successful experiments, as a former secretary, ministry of road transport and highways points out, and can take care of several of India’s issues like dealing with all kinds of waste, reducing dependence on imports, providing extra income for farmers, apart from being emission-friendly.

That said, all these are in the nascent stage, and will need massive updates in infrastructure when adopted – EVs included. We need to see what kind of fuel mix suits our circumstances best. Taking it slow is important because the government’s funds have opportunity costs.

Ideally, EVs should be allowed to be taken up naturally, and dictated by market forces. Meanwhile, ways for reduction of dependence on imported oil, and to fight pollution levels must continue to be pondered over. In our last commentary on mobility, we had recommended strongly, making non-motorised transport and the ecosystem thereof, robust.

E=Three-Wheelers Must Be Helped To Increase Their Tribe

As EV plans at all levels proceed in bits and pieces, fits and starts, one area that needs to be a thrust area is three-wheelers. They have proven to be efficacious in providing last-mile connectivity to commuters in the Metro (DMRC) in the Delhi-NCR region.

They are a crucial link in boosting public transport, which can go a long way in reducing private transport use. This alone makes them deserving of subsidy, along with their employment-generation potential. Further, experience has also shown them as being lower-cost, practical, easy to charge, and easy to navigate. This is where states must pull out all stops to make their journey comfortable.

The private sector must come forward in supporting infrastructure. Essel Infra projects, for instance, has decided to invest Rs 1,750 crore in UP, for 250 charging stations for e-rickshaws, as well as 1,000 battery swapping locations. Given that many towns and cities in UP are driven mostly around on two- and three-wheelers, such solutions are welcome and serve the purpose well enough. CSR initiatives must support the creation of the ecosystem around this category of EVs, specifically.

Also read:

Swappable Batteries: A Game-Changing Alternative Or A Viable Auxiliary In EV Infrastructure?

‘Charge’ Is The Key To Change In Electric Vehicle Revolution

Revving Up The EV Revolution: How Policy-Making And Technical Challenges Can Be Overcome