Slow wheels of EV revolution

Slow wheels of EV revolution

The much awaited and prolonged development of India’s electric vehicle (EV) policy has seen a whirlwind of promises, ambitious targets and some progress.

Disappointingly, however, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, in February had remarked that India does not need a national policy on EVs, and consequently, the policy narrative quickly assumed a back-flip. Though, a few days later, Power Minister RK Singh constituted a committee with the Central Electricity Authority to formulate an EV policy.

As we now eagerly wait for the committee’s recommendations to be rolled out, here are some take-aways from California’s robust EV policy. California’s Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act mandated that its large investor-owned utility companies - Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison filed applications for transportation electrification projects by January 2017. The proposed projects were to increase investments in EV charging infrastructure, with a focus on medium and heavy duty fleet vehicles, and expand education and market outreach in the automobile sector. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved these projects with modifications in April 2018, some of which I contributed to as part of a non-profit organisation called The Utility Reform Network, San Francisco.

With the tragic environmental health of India attracting global concern, it is evident that our major cities have some of the worst levels of air quality, significantly because of tail-pipe emissions. A policy on EVs must centrally focus on the goal of widespread acceleration of EV adoption that would rapidly reduce toxic emissions and ensure the displacement of our extensive dependence on fossil fuels.

However, this would not in itself guarantee a successful Indian EV revolution if we continue to be heavily reliant on dirty and inefficient fossil fuel to power the electric grid. India’s current climate policies are set to meet the required non-fossil capacity target of 40% for 2030 under the Paris Agreement and an appropriate EV policy must only contribute to the ongoing progress, to holistically improve our air quality.

While the state governments and public and private industry stakeholders are proactively engaging in the procurement of EVs and developing regional plans, it is equally important for environmental and consumer organisations to participate in policy formulation, if we wish to have a long-standing impact from a policy that is both progressive and cost-effective.

Sustainable benefits

One of the key provisos of a strong EV policy is to observe how the policy directly translates into sustainable benefits for our people. We cannot undermine the fact that EVs may not be affordable for most to begin with, notwithstanding the additional investments required for recovering regulatory tariffs, installing expensive charging infrastructure and administering subsidies for EV owners. The US has learnt it the hard way with the Tesla episode, and is still experimenting with cost-effective EVs. It is important that India capitalises on this early, to prioritise medium and heavy-duty fleet vehicles for public transport that will have maximum utility for investments.

There is also a parallel risk of ending up with stranded assets in the future, because of the nature of technological advancements in charging infrastructure, and it is time to step up the game to avoid futile efforts in this regard.

The other is the caveat of costs of implementation after the policy is introduced. It could well be that power distribution companies and EV service providers would implement EV programmes through licenses issued by the CEA.

The legislative intent of the Electricity Act, 2003, is to ensure that rates charged from customers must be fair, reasonable and proportional to the use of any service. It is important to review the policy in the context of the law and check the reasonableness of regulatory tariffs and incidental incentives for EV owners.

The caveat is instrumental for preventing the exploitation of people and resources by the industry and power sectors, and we surely do not want to add to the multitude of environmental laws and regulations that need to be rewritten for the benefit of the target audience — the environment and people. India is gradually recognising niche energy and environmental issues, and it is upon all of us to be conscious and be involved in the change, because destruction of the environment is already underway. The time to act is now.

(The writer is environmental and energy lawyer/activist currently working with The Utility Reform Network, San Francisco)