Clean Tech

Why we cannot afford to miss the e-bus

S Muralidhar | Updated on May 02, 2021

Sustainable ride: E-buses entail low operating and maintenance costs

In the run-up to mass electric mobility, e-buses can help foster an EV ecosystem in the country, especially standardised charging stations

Electric mobility is likely to take a completely opposite route in India compared to trends witnessed globally. In the most developed markets of the world, electric vehicle makers are taking a top-down approach, and are only now looking for mass market solutions, after nearly a decade since the first EVs were launched. In India, however, we are likely to witness a bottoms-up approach with electric 2- and 3-wheelers driving the adoption of EVs over the next few years.

But, in parallel, can the electrification of public transport accelerate the acceptance of the EV ecosystem? Will e-buses, for example, spur the creation of an electrified transport network and infrastructure, eventually leading to higher adoption among private players and individual vehicle owners? Also, given that public transport operations are heavily subsidised, will the current incentivising of electric mobility better serve citizens if it is directed at increasing the fleet of e-buses? What are the opportunities and the challenges in this space?

Increased adoption

Many state governments have been slowly adding e-buses into the mix. Under the government’s FAME (faster adoption and manufacturing of electric vehicles) scheme, states like Goa, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have already inducted e-buses into service. The government says it has okayed introducing more than 6,200 e-buses in about 65 cities. Many are already running in cities like Patna, Mumbai, Indore, Lucknow, Delhi and Kolkata, with plans to multiply during the next decade. Tamil Nadu is planning to procure 2,000 e-buses over the next few years, with 500 slated for this year.

EVs or tech agnosticism?

Like all EVs, e-buses cost significantly more than conventional ICE (internal combustion engine) buses. While the initial cost of acquisition is way higher for e-buses, daily operational costs may be lower in the long term compared with diesel buses. So, are EVs the best bet if we want to clean up the air?

Says Rahul Mishra, partner in consultancy firm Kearney India, “If the objective is to reduce carbon footprint, there are several technologies available now (and the government is talking about all of them) — EVs, CNG, LNG (which is seeing a big push from energy majors), fuel cells, hydrogen, etc.” However, the technology that proves most economical for public transport will gain greater acceptance, he says. Moreover, if the objective is to reduce the carbon footprint, the government should merely set the target and leave the choice of technology to the industry, he recommends.

Given their high cost, e-buses will require central and state subsidies to become viable for deployment. Saumitra Sehgal, Managing Partner of consultancy firm Roland Berger India, says the barriers to adoption are not just financial but also psychological, especially for intercity travel. “The cost of a 9-metre ICE bus is about ₹60 lakh, while a similar sized e-bus is priced ₹1crore to ₹2 crore, depending on features and battery capacity,” he says.

Though the central government offers a higher subsidy for e-buses compared to other vehicle categories — ₹20,000 per kWh, which works out to ₹6 lakh for a battery capacity of 300 kWh — it is still a fraction of the upfront cost, he adds. “However, e-buses can be a sustainable solution mainly due to the lower operating costs and much lower maintenance costs,” says Sehgal, adding that accessible charging points at the depots can make all the difference.

Charging facilities

Compared to privately owned EVs and their need for a nationwide charging network, intra-city e-buses need stations only at a few depots because of their point-to-point operation. Yet, there is a challenge here too. Currently, multiple bus manufacturers like Tata, Ashok Leyland and BYD from China are in the fray for contracts from state transport undertakings (STU). The cost-benefit analysis involves battery size and capacity. Complexities can arise in choosing from the multiple charging protocols and formats.

Should the STU choose a plug-in charging format or a battery swap model or a pantograph charging set-up. Choosing one over the other could lead to a fragmented charging network, reducing interoperability — other STUs or bus operators using a different charging format cannot use them.

Some of these charging stations cost $350,000-plus, making them potential white elephants if underutilised.

The government is studying the issue of standardisation. A common standard will also promote localisation and bring in the advantages of scale.

Additionally, all the key enablers for the creation and sustenance of the EV ecosystem must be developed in parallel. Says V Sumantran, Chairman of consultancy firm Celeris Technologies, “EVs will be economically viable in the near term. As the fraction of our electricity grid fed by renewable sources increases, this solution will make even more sense.” He, however, flags the crucial need to recycle the batteries to lower the load on the environment.

E-buses can prove to be a greener, more democratic and viable alternative to the ageing fleet of smoke-belching diesel buses on Indian roads. The government needs to focus on a holistic approach to the electrification of public transport.

S Muralidhar

Published on May 02, 2021

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