Clean Tech

Stung by the blues while trying to go green

S. Muralidhar | Updated on March 10, 2018


Electric vehicle owners go through a lot more pain than just range anxiety

Earlier this month, in a glitzy, bubbly-popping event filled with chatty local socialites and prospective customers in their Sunday best, Volvo India launched its latest luxury sports utility vehicle. It didn’t sport a burly new V8 engine, yet it was the most powerful vehicle to wear the Swedish car brand's logo. Under the hood, was a relatively small two-litre petrol engine joining an electric motor to offer a combined power of 402bhp and 640Nm of torque. The XC90 plug-in hybrid can do 0-100 kmph in 5.6 seconds, but it can also deliver a claimed mileage of 47.6kmpl!

For the upper crust

Priced at a cool Rs 1.25 crore, this four-seater luxury vehicle is symbolic of the skewed market for hybrids and electric vehicles. Worldwide, it is all bunched up at the top-end of the price range. Apparently, only the wealthy can hope to go green. At least, that is the story with cars, with e-bikes, the problem of access is much less pronounced, but here too there are multiple challenges that buyers face when they are aiming to go green.

To truly make a tangible difference to the environment, plug-ins and all-electrics need to go mass-market. Right now, China and Japan are the two countries that are at the forefront of developing affordable vehicles of this kind. But, in India, affordability and range anxiety are not the only issues faced by potential buyers of electric vehicles. Access to a widespread charging network, roadside assistance and a recycling infrastructure will be the real drivers in the long term.

No enabling infrastructure

The Indian government is attempting to join the global race and express its concern for the environment through incentives under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrids &) Electrics (FAME) scheme. But, the scheme and some of the other efforts don't even add up to half measures.

To accelerate adoption, there needs to be a bigger push towards setting up a charging infrastructure, the lack of which will perpetually raise its head in the run up to achieving the stated intent of promoting e-mobility.

It is not really a chicken and egg situation, if we look at the experience of other countries that are pushing to go electric in a big way. Says Chetan Maini, Director Maini Group and the father of the Reva electric car, “globally there are over one million charging stations, but India has less than 500 charging points (besides ones that people have installed privately in their homes or in companies). So we still have a long way to go.”

Maini points out that “only some of the FAME funds have been set aside for charging infrastructure and a small amount has been used for some pilot projects. However, this will need to be accelerated at a larger scale. We still have a long way to go.”

Sales of EVs is barely one per cent of total vehicle sales in the US, the biggest automotive market for these vehicles. Cumulative sales of plug-ins till end 2015 was just 0.1 per cent of the total of one billion vehicles on the world’s roads. Yet, the charging infrastructure has been growing rapidly. There are about 15,000 charging stations with nearly 35,000 charging outlets as of today in the US alone.

“I believe that the government should do more to support infrastructure development for EVs. These should include a combination of AC (normal charging), DC (fast charging) and battery swapping. In most countries, governments have played a large role in setting this up through public-private partnerships. Getting the infrastructure in place removes a lot of the fear of ‘range anxiety’ that is in people’s minds and will help accelerate adoption of EVs,” says Maini.

The e-bike option

The story is not very different with e-bikes and pedelecs, though, with these types of electric two-wheeled transport, affordability and access shouldn’t be a deterrent. One legacy issue with two-wheelers and three-wheelers which has affected sales in the past has been the use of lead-acid batteries with a short life span. But e-bike makers are taking to Lithium-ion batteries, which offer the advantage of higher charge density, a larger operational range and longer life. Li-ion batteries can also handle fast charge cycles, making them more useful while riding in the city. But, the charging infrastructure needs to be in place.

Sohinder Gill, CEO, Global, Hero Electric says, “the use of Li-ion batteries can be looked at as a reliable option and they are portable, so can be removed and charged at any floor of the apartment. Similarly, a driving range of 3-4 hours can be had by opting for batteries with higher specific energy or through a well-distributed infrastructure for charging and supply of replacement batteries. Manufacturers can only develop the technology for charging stations, but the onus of developing the network to charge e-bikes still falls on the government.”

The government's strategy to promote e-vehicles through incentives has also been a bit scattered in the past. Lamenting a lost opportunity, Gill says that "There was a brief period of three years between the MNRE (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy) subsidy scheme and National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 (NEMMP) incentive resulting in a shrinkage of the market. Manufactures shut businesses and dealers moved out to other products. Now with NEMMP, we expect new players to come in and expand the market. Also, the lack of infrastructure has made these electric models a rare sight on the roads. To completely shift the focus of prospective buyers towards electric vehicles, better infrastructure and tax waiver for e-vehicles are vital."

Towards zero-emission mobility

Today, there is a lot of awareness about the benefits of going green by choosing e-vehicles. The eternal debate about whether electric mobility just shifts the pollution from the city to the hinterland where the thermal power plant is located will continue. But, if the immediate advantages of zero-emission mobility are to be reaped, then the government needs to get past the rhetoric. And the first step towards that is setting up the charging infrastructure.

The Indian example is very different to the rest of the world. Here buyers will have to contend with living in high-rises which often have no dedicated parking spots. This leads to street parking with the risk of theft very high. Hence the reliance on a protected public charging infrastructure is inevitable.

While e-bikes can still get over some of these limitations by using portable batteries, electric cars and plug-in hybrids with huge battery packs still need in-situ solutions. Public-private partnership projects that incentivise setting up charging stations in apartment complexes can be a solution. Battery swapping, has been tried in the past, and can be another option. These are likely to be low margin projects, so attracting investments will be an issue. Companies will find long-term benefits from setting up an internal charging infrastructure, but individual buyers will need support in the form of a public network.

With the XC90 T8 Excellence, Volvo is supplying two charging stations which will be professionally installed by its technicians at locations of the buyer's choice. For the rest of us who can't afford a luxury car, hopefully Indian ingenuity will come up with some 'Jugaad engineering' solutions to beat the government's lethargy. (ends)

Published on September 27, 2016

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