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India's going electric

Chetan Maini Dec 16 2017, 23:50 IST
Chetan Maini

Chetan Maini

India is at a critical juncture in electric mobility. The Government of India's initial bold moves towards its target of going completely electric by 2030 has spurred the electric vehicle (EV) ecosystem. Sectors such as energy, mobility and shared economy culture are coming together for the first time. And, as the pieces of the different segments start to unravel, exciting and new opportunities are opening up for entrepreneurs in EV manufacturing, charging infrastructure, battery solutions, robotics, and energy solutions, to name a few.

The EV momentum stepped up with the Centre recently floating tenders for 10,000 electric cars and 4,000 charging stations and initiating the process to issue national standards for charging stations. States like Karnataka and Telangana, too, have begun rolling out EV policies.

There is traction towards electric mobility on the global front as well. China is a market leader for electric vehicles and is estimated to have sold over four lakh electric cars till September 2017. Norway is one of the front-runner countries that introduced favorable EV policies in the 1990s, which included tax breaks and development of charging infrastructure, and as a result today enjoys the highest per capita fleet of plug-in EVs in the world. The market share of EVs as a percentage of overall automotive sales has grown from under 5% in 2013 to 32% in 2017. In the US, California has provided financial subsidies, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane access and rapid deployment of charging infrastructure. However, such measures may not necessarily work in India, with its diverse transport systems.

India has nearly 180 million two-wheelers, and a majority of the population still relies heavily on public transport like buses. India also holds the largest market share for three-wheelers, which is a mode of transport uncommon to other nations. In addition to this mix, Indians have embraced the idea of sharing services, such as Ola and Uber, that offer convenience, variety and cost-effectiveness. In this unique and diverse mix of shared, private and public transport, sustainable electric mobility solutions have to be first deployed in public transport and shared services to make business sense as these modes of transport drive and pollute the most, and are the fastest growing modes of commuting.

Government initiatives need to consider multiple solutions to create and support a favourable ecosystem for India's EV push. A 'one size fits all' approach would not work in India. Besides the challenge of tackling the multiple modes of transport, three core problems exist currently in the EV industry €“ high cost of an electric vehicle, range anxiety and long charging times. There is a lack of infrastructure for EV, equivalent to that for petrol and diesel vehicles. Not enough models of electric cars, buses and other vehicles are available in this area and hence the performance of an EV does not match that of internal combustion vehicles. If you want to switch to sustainable EV mobility, you need to spend on power train and batteries; this makes the costs of EVs shoot up. Instead, one solution lies in separating the energy equation from the vehicle. To make electric mobility more viable than what was possible five years ago, new technologies like fast charging and swappable batteries can be deployed to power EVs.

These latest battery solutions do not just make EV cost-effective, they can be customised to meet the needs of our different modes of transport. For example, regular charging works very well for private to-and-fro transport, fast charge is an option; but, for public or shared mobility, one cannot afford to wait for 2-3 hours for the vehicle to be recharged. Therefore, swappable battery technology makes more sense. A taxi driver can swap a depleted battery with a fully charged one in less time than re-fueling a conventional vehicle, thereby ensuring they are able to fulfil all their rides in a day.

Swappable technology takes care of high cost, as the battery and related technology is separated from the vehicle. For example, if a fleet owner had to pay 10 years' fuel costs upfront while buying a diesel bus, it wouldn't make sense. Similarly, when buying an EV currently, the user is paying for the battery cost -- which is 40-60% of the vehicle cost -- upfront. If the battery is financially detached from the vehicle and offered as a service by energy solutions providers, the user of an EV does not have to pay this amount upfront and can pay-as-you-go (exactly how he/she pays for petrol or diesel today). Battery swapping stations can be deployed at existing petrol bunks, public buildings, metro stations, etc.

Sustainable electric mobility will work in the long run only if you develop a supporting clean energy infrastructure to power the needs of the electric vehicle fleet. The country is planning to add 100 GW of solar energy capacity by 2022. Even if all vehicles sold in 2022 were to be electric, they would require only a quarter of this additional capacity to power the entire fleet. By 2030 if India goes all-electric, we are targeting a generation capacity of 350 GW of renewable energy, which would be more than sufficient to power the 400 million vehicles that will be on road by then.

There is an opportunity for all road transportation to be powered by renewable energy. This would help offset the estimated $330 billion oil import costs (by 2030), reduce pollution (by cutting 1 giga-tonne of CO2 emissions), and address energy security challenges in one shot.

Interestingly, solar energy prices in India have dropped to Rs 2.44 per kWh and battery technology is also improving, reducing the cost of batteries by 8% year-on-year. All these factors will propel EV into the mainstream and make it an attractive option.

The huge transformation of the electric mobility sector will offer immense opportunities and potential in the automotive sector, which currently accounts for about 7% of our GDP. Due to the varied transport needs, there is great opportunity for both existing and new businesses to participate in creating and maintaining an EV ecosystem. This opens a new market for companies in electronics, IT, robotics, renewable energy and transportation services to be a part of this journey and reap benefits by creating innovative solutions in their respective areas. For instance, players such as Microsoft and Xiaomi are entering the automotive space for the first time.

The future of mobility is electric, shared, connected (interoperable) and powered by renewable energy.

(The writer is India's electric car
pioneer and currently vice-chairman, Sun Mobility)

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