Powering India out of crude dependency

As the government chants sustainability mantra, premium bus players are devising means to drive their vehicles, promoting greener returns

Powering India out of crude dependency

India’s road situation has gone downward spiral. Apart from the notorious traffic snarls that daily commuters, motorists and pedestrians suffer, an upsurge in pollution levels has made life miserable for urban dwellers.

If a shining India set the stage for a new-found prosperity enshrined in the personal swanky wheels acquired by a well-to-do populace, the outcome of this reality is more about pollution and congestion. On the other hand, citizens are caught in the domino effect of rising global crude oil prices and government policies that unfortunately tend to pinch a few always.     
 
An aware Centre, in a bid to ease pressure off citizens and with a common good in mind, is looking at various solutions to help the country grow sustainably.

Fuelling without ‘fuel’

There has always been a need to scout for alternative sources of fuel and energy to power vehicles. India has accounted for a huge imports bill of Rs 6 lakh crore on crude per annum, and exploring and generating indigenous alternatives would cut crude imports by at least Rs 1 lakh crore.

On that note, recently, the government recently announced that it would soon come out with policies on second-generation ethanol and methanol.

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has also stated that besides creating an industry worth Rs 1 lakh crore, the move could provide employment to around 25 lakh youth.

According to data from the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, in 2014, the transport sector was the major consumer of diesel, accounting for 70% of the total sales that year.

Answering the clarion call of the market, premium bus-makers, armed with global expertise and tomorrow’s technical know-how, are motoring down environment lane.

When it comes to ethanol-based transport solutions, Sweden’s commercial vehicles giant Scania says it is ready with a whole turnkey offering on its shelf.

“Scania has 20 years of experience with ethanol technology. We have been making and selling bio fuel buses in Europe, as well as in Brazil,” Scania India President Stefan Palskog informs Deccan Herald.

It is interesting to note that Brazil, with its huge sugarcane industry, has taken a great leap in the area of blending ethanol into petrol for personal cars, and where Scania’s buses run on pure 95% ethanol.

But in India, home to many ethanol producers, most of the supply happens to the liquor industry.

In order to run a bus engine, ethanol in the denatured form is needed. “There are over 600 ethanol producers in India, but very few have the capability to produce and sell denatured ethanol directly to us,” Palskog says.

An enthusiastic Scania, however, has already unveiled its product in India, with five buses having already been provided to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation on December 3, last year, with 50 additional buses to be delivered by the end of this year.

Ethanol, a naturally derived bio fuel, is akin to diesel in performance and reliability, except that it is far more suitable for the environment, with almost zilch CO2 emissions. While the technology is not new, its evolution into a favourable, efficient fuel has been nothing short of cutting-edge. Yet, its adoption in a country like India has been rather subdued; blame it on cost, policy, or plain old perception.

“Alternate fuel vehicles are very much required to tackle rising pollution levels, and the government is looking at electric, or other solutions. It is initiating good processes for the road ahead,” says Price Waterhouse Partner Abdul Majeed, adding that a lot of challenges still persist.

He opines, “Ethanol is a good concept. As an agricultural country, it all makes sense for India, but regulation is a big problem in the country right now. No major supportive regulations exist for making it commercially viable, which must be sorted out.”

Says Palskog, “The primary perception in India is about cost, rather than value. While people do learn that an ethanol bus is relatively costlier than a regular diesel bus, they are not calculating the value it generates overtime.”

“In India, one must identify the stakeholding chain and it must be in a way that everyone is a winner. Otherwise, if you have one link in that chain winning more that the rest, the chain will break… It’s all about shifting the tax from one aspect to another. The customer who wants to buy a green bus must be incentivised. The public who will step onto the green bus must be incentivised. The producer must be stimulated to make fuel, and also environmentally-friendly transport. But the present logic is the other way around,” he adds.

Today, when customers, especially state transport undertakings, buy buses, it is largely on price and not value, and the lowest price wins. While the respective government’s contract must include factors such as environment, quality, safety, and then hardware, today, it looks like just hardware.

Scania developed its ethanol engine in the mid-1990s. In India, the fuel is being pushed for city buses, for which, the company has identified 12 suppliers of the fuel.

“In terms of infrastructure, we will set up a tank facility where the bus is serviced. Once the bus returns after its rounds, we will clean, wash, and refuel it. We are providing our customers with fuel for now, as there is no infrastructure available, Palskog says, adding that the company has plans for biogas too.

Driving change

Recently, the government extended demand incentives worth Rs 127.77 crore for the purchase of over 1.11 lakh electric and hybrid vehicles under the FAME-India (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (hybrid &) Electric vehicles in India) scheme, which also includes buses.

Electric mobility is in, and Volvo, another mega Swedish bus pioneer, with decades of pedigree in the said realm, eyes bringing this technology to India.

“Everything will leapfrog to Euro VI (similar to BS VI) by 2020. Buses will be a part of the strategic direction for Volvo Group, and we look at electric mobility as the next horizon for the bus industry in India,” Volvo India Managing Director Kamal Bali says.

Volvo Buses began its electric journey with hybrid, and plug-in hybrid is expected to be the next wave, followed by full-electric buses. These buses have already been launched in Sweden and few other countries.

“Hybrid is part electric, part fuel, which cuts out diesel consumption by over 35%, which means that one uses 50% less carbon footprint,” explains Bali, adding that with plug-in hybrid or opportunity charging, one can take 70% power on electricity and remaining on fuel, and the third step being to electrify, with bus stations and depots sporting charging infrastructure.

All over the world, Volvo operates all three solutions, between which, it has sold over 7,000 buses. In India, there are two hybrid bus units (city buses in Mumbai) on the road right now, while three more are expected.

About electric mobility, Majeed says, “There’s no point having coal-fired power generation and then running buses, because those (thermal) plants are more dangerous for the environment,” adding that sustainable power generation must be encouraged.  

Volvo Buses is also part of the narrative with Niti Aayog, looking at alternative fuels, especially for long-haul applications. It is also looking at other alternative fuel solutions such as dimethyl ether (DME).

With the sector taking its first step, all eyes are on the government hastening its development agenda, with smart cities also on the anvil.

Wishing that misconceptions of cost, reliability and safety be allayed, Majeed says, “If you reduce the dependency of crude oil import, the economy will pick up, not only in terms of environment, but also financial health.”

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