The dismal performance of the electric mobility programme so far and its fuzzy rules do not inspire confidence in this ambition.
It sent seismic shocks across the auto world when the Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari announced the policy intent to push out diesel cars and promote electric-mobility in no uncertain terms in the recently held convention of Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. He made it clear that electric vehicles should play a key role and India should aim for electric public transportation over the next 25 years. While raising hopes for a zero emission future, the pronouncement also stirred doubts about possible unintended environmental consequences.
Mr Gadkari’s statement is consistent with the larger policy vision of the Union Government and its ambition of having 100 per cent electric vehicle sales by 2030. There is also the target of the National Electric Mobility Mission to have six-seven million electric vehicles by 2020. This strategy no doubt is driven by the urgency to have zero emission vehicles in our cities, which are in the grip of killer pollution, reduce oil imports for energy security, and also cut carbon emissions to save the climate-challenged world. But these good intentions are still without a firm roadmap to make industry plan its investments.
The dismal performance of the electric mobility programme so far and its fuzzy rules do not inspire confidence in this ambition. Very high costs and investment barriers make it tough for electric vehicles to compete with mainstream technologies of petrol and diesel. Electric vehicles are still a low volume segment — with only 1.3 per cent market penetration in India and about 3 per cent globally. More refined strategies that are evolving globally for quicker uptake of these vehicles are not in India yet and steps are uncertain. This is evident in the ill-designed policies to promote electric mobility so far. When the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) analysed the FAME programme (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicle) to promote electro-mobility, it found that during 2015-16, close to 60 per cent of the incentive meant for electric vehicles went to diesel mild hybrids. These hybrids are only 7-15 per cent more fuel-efficient than polluting conventional diesel models.
This incentive should have been spent on electric vehicles and infrastructure. Public criticism led to a hurried amendment to disqualify mild diesel hybrids from incentives under this programme. This clearly shows that the electric mobility programme needs to be designed well to avoid unintended consequences and provide clearer market signals for product and market development. But not many are convinced about the electro-mobility programme itself. There are worries about higher emissions from coal power generation to meet the demand of increased electricity. There is also the high cost of transition, and environmental contamination from battery disposal and car-based growth, even if electric.
Electric-mobility is a paradigm shift from internal combustion engines. The world is waiting to cut emissions and fuel guzzling and India cannot avoid doing the same. It is true that fully battery-operated electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions on the road, but their lifecycle emissions are determined by the source of power generation, which in India is mainly coal, and coal is the dirtiest form of power generation compared to hydro and renewable energy.
The intensity of the life cycle emissions of electric vehicles can be reduced substantially if grid power is cleaned up with more renewable energy infusion aligned with India’s post-2020 climate action plans. The advantage of electric vehicles is that the energy source of electricity can change flexibly if renewable energy expands. About 15 per cent of India’s power is from hydro while renewable power generation is expanding to meet the ambition of 22,000 MW.
Similarly, the infrastructure for disposing of batteries has to expand to make it safer. This problem is not unique to electric vehicles. Even today all vehicles are saddled with batteries that need periodic replacement and disposal. Cities will have to implement Battery Disposal and Management Rules of the Central Pollution Control Board — with or without electric vehicles. The bigger win, however, will come from combining the electro-mobility programme with public transport strategy.
Unfortunately, under the FAME programme, not a single public transport vehicle of any kind has enjoyed incentive. Even though vehicle manufacturers have come up with electric bus models, there is no framework for commercialising these models. But in most of our cities average distances and trip length are short and suitable for use of short-range electric vehicles on local routes. This can be a cost-effective, zero emission mobility solution. Cost curve of batteries is already falling and as Mr Gadkari has hinted, it has dropped by 40 per cent. Only a clear mandate and firm roadmap can allow scale. Clearly, India needs course correction and a roadmap with a fiscal strategy to expand the electro-mobility programme to leapfrog to a much cleaner future.
(The author campaigns for clean air and public health. She is executive director — research and advocacy and head of the air pollution and clean transportation programme at Centre for Science and Environment.)