Integrating Electric Vehicles into India's Public Transport - Plugging the Gap

Ashok Leyland Launching Circuit, India's First Indigenous Electric Bus (Courtesy: The Hindu Business Line)
The recent air pollution crisis episode of Delhi has only reaffirmed what most people already know - we need to use less cars, crop stubble in other states has to stop burning, better dust control is needed etc. One attractive idea that has been hanging fire for some time (since the time Mr Praful Patel was minister of industries under the UPA) has been the push for electric vehicles. In recent times, we have seen some progress into the area - we have a much improved car in E2O from Mahindra since their Reva purchase that is developed in India apart from such cars as Prius, Civic Hybrid and Scorpio hybrid being in the market. We have seen several electric two wheelers come onto the roads. Ashok Leyland recently announced the launch of its own electric bus, while Mercedes and Volvo can bring this technology into the Indian market any time, given their assembly capabilities in India. We have a major National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 (NEMMP) in place for a while targeting 100% electric vehicles on the road, and a grant scheme - Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles (FAME) in India since 2015. Nitin Gadkari, the current Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has often expressed the idea of retrofitting car engines with battery technology. However, despite a broadly supportive regulatory environment, we have at best only come up with mass deployment of lead-acid battery operated rickshaws as a success story. Attempts to adopt buses running on battery technology have seen some success in recent times, with Himachal Pradesh (HP) securing a grant for 25 buses under the FAME scheme, and Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) giving an in principle approval for acquiring 150 electric buses into its overall fleet of 6000 buses. Moreover, as the NEMMP has identified, thousands of jobs - direct and indirect - can be easily created if original equipment manufacturing is promoted in Indian states. However, even these have stumbled over roadblocks that were unforeseen. So what prevents the adoption of electric vehicles in India? And what kind of electric vehicles should we focus on?

While the policy environment is broadly supportive, there are several hoops that still have to be jumped before reaching the goal. One ironic thing came up when the government of HP tried to register electric buses for operations - the current Motor Vehicles Act has no provision to register electric buses, thereby declaring such a vehicle legally ineligible for pliancy under all circumstances. Mercifully, this is not the case with cars, and electric rickshaws have been exempted from such requirements. However, not addressing such basic points is a major impediment, as it adds to idle capacity. Given the National Green Tribunal orders over the Rohtang Pass case and the urgency of the state to deploy alternatives so as to not kill tourism altogether, allowing capacity to idle away due to lack of due diligence and sufficient regulatory and legal preparedness is nothing short of a crime.

Another bizarre aspect has been the absolute lack of battery technology development in India. Attempts by the Modi government to woo Nikola Tesla to set up manufacturing base in India has not fructified thus far. Japan and China’s capabilities are far ahead; however, there may be concerns with new rules of Extended Producer Responsibility on batteries in India, given the lack of a proper formal ecosystem to dispose batteries. In such a scenario, there is a need to build capacity for disposal in the appropriate scientific manner. Experience from the automobile sector on end-of-life vehicle (ELV) disposal has left much to desire, given that we are still struggling to set up and operationalize vehicle scrap yards. Haste has to be exhibited in resolving this challenge swiftly in order to allow disposal. Much as the lead acid battery market works successfully, lessons need to be learnt and also extended to particularly the electric two wheelers and e-rickshaws, which currently operate on lead acid batteries.

One sticky point that seems to have no proper answer is the lack of supporting charging infrastructure. Much like fuel stations, electric vehicles also need to have places where batteries can be charged up to allow vehicles to move. The cost of such infrastructure is considered high, and so far the government has not explored sufficiently the ways to go about creating capacity in this space. The answers are however easy if one taps into the current energy policy scenario. Oil marketing companies (OMCs) are currently struggling to meet renewable energy obligations handed to them under the 175GW renewable energy program. These OMCs can easily turn this threat to their business into an opportunity and build charging infrastructure running on renewable resources to complement their fuel stations. Similarly, financially weak electricity distribution companies can tap into this new source of potential income by connecting renewable energy supplies, which are also presently struggling to get the appropriate price on Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) market, with the charging requirements and pass on some of the benefits. States like HP are already considering announcing a special tariff and exploring ways to supply more than surplus power from hydro power resources towards charging electric buses; other states can simply tap into wind energy, which tends to peak at night time, and divert it towards charging of vehicles. This idea as part of a smart grid concept is not a new idea, but it is an idea whose time has certainly come.

With these problems having been identified, one additional question that comes up is on the type of electric vehicle whose adoption should be encouraged at a large scale. E-rickshaws and e-scooters are good, but they cannot be used beyond long distances, and can at best complement public transport. We already have the mass transit rails working on electricity. Electric cars are a good option; however, the total cost of ownership (TCO) is very high despite insignificant operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. By far, the best option in this regard is the one that is picking up only because of China’s movement - electric buses. As an analysis by the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) for the city of Bengaluru shows, the difference between of TCO of electric buses and diesel and CNG buses is not high; and the viability gap is small enough to be covered by a one time grant to spur the economic benefits. Grant programs such as the FAME Scheme are ideal to cover the viability gap, and must be used to accelerate the adoption of electric buses.

All major cities are right now struggling to operate their fleet of buses, as they face several challenges. There are too many old buses that are being retired out, and the administration is struggling to replace them with new buses. The fuel costs are burning a big hole in the finances of the state and city owned transport companies, who are facing another crisis in generating sufficient revenue due to subsidized ticket pricing. Given the significance of public transportation and its direct impact on the quality of environment as well as the fact that transport sector contributes to about 25% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, electric vehicles are a no-brainer for a country like India that also has the hurdle of fuel security to jump over. Electric vehicles are certainly not a silver bullet, but they can go a long way in synergizing forces across several sectors in India.It is time for the elephant to be electrified, so that it can now sprint towards its multiple objectives of mitigation, job creation, grid stabilization and energy security among others, all in a go.


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