Above: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during the handing over ceremony of e-rickshaws to the Senegalese ambassador/Photo: UNI
The Delhi government’s plan to introduce e-vehicles over the next five years is a good idea in a city battling high pollution levels, but high costs, limited range and infrastructure may be bugbears
By Murad Ali Baig
The Delhi government took a big step on November 26 by announcing a major effort to boost the city’s shift to e-vehicles (EVs) by a projected 25 percent in the next five years. It has offered to give free permits for e-rickshaws, provide charging or swapping stations at three-km distances, and waive registration fees on new cars that will bring down purchase costs by six to eight percent.
This is a commendable initiative by the AAP government and goes beyond the standard political rhetoric about food, clothes, housing, electricity and water. But international experience shows that people are very reluctant to shift from petrol or diesel vehicles to electric ones unless there are big incentives. The Delhi government cannot waive the considerable cost of GST or import duties on components, but if the central government were to help by waiving these costs and all other taxes, it would make a much bigger impact. It is, however, unlikely that this will happen as AAP’s influence on the centre is not strong, even though the government has announced an EV policy for Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles.
Nonetheless, it is a good initiative as pollution is one of the leading causes of climate change. This was dramatically demonstrated by the recent unprecedented fires in California and the devastating floods in Kerala and many other parts of the world. The melting glaciers will eventually cause a rise in sea levels even if that threat is many years away. And automotive pollution contributes to about 25 percent of this atmospheric pollution. Domestic cooking and heating, coal-based power plants, construction and other dust are also villains. In fact, methane from cattle dung is also very harmful as it is 20 times more damaging to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide.
All automotive companies are aware of this crisis and are, therefore, making genuine efforts to move from diesel and petrol engines to EVs. Today, there are some four million EVs in operation, of which 10 percent are in China. A million EVs are expected to be sold in 2018. Auto companies want to sell bikes, cars, and commercial vehicles, and are not wedded to internal combustion engines. Unfortunately, progress has been slow because EVs are expensive and have a limited range, making many sceptics think that the promotion of these vehicles is mostly a PR exercise.
Several countries like China and Sweden and many states like California have tried to bridge these gaps to encourage EVs with large price subsidies, tax reductions and other incentives. However, the impact has not been impressive because electric or hybrid vehicles are still very expensive and can usually only go about 100 km on a full battery charge. They also need to find a charging point at the end of a run, but do not want to wait for hours to get a decent charge. China, which had suffered massive pollution, has announced that it plans to set up an infrastructure of 4.8 million charging points by 2022 with an investment of $1.9 billion. The UK plans to invest £400 million for a charging network, and the US plans to spend $738 m of which New York will spend $250 m.
Things are, however, slowly changing, and the expensive lithium ion battery packs are slowly getting cheaper. Companies are now also offering longer range and quicker charging devices, but they still have a long way to go. Some cities like London have been successful in offering free charging points at parking lots where car owners are happy to leave their vehicles for a few hours. London also offers all electric cars exemption from the congestion charge, making e-cars the only cars that can freely roam through central London.
A car is a major investment decision for most families and it will need a big push to persuade people to switch from familiar fossil fuel burning cars to electric ones. With countries such as the US offering a huge incentive of up to $7,500 to carmakers (up to 2,00,000 cars), many environment-conscious people are making the switch. If every country offered a complete tax holiday, it would set a trend and not cost much to the exchequer during the initial few years. An important incentive would be to also offer a good scrapping bonus for those who swap an old vehicle for a new e-vehicle.
All auto companies are, however, serious about e-technologies and their EVs are getting better. GM has sold nearly 2,00,000 e-cars, but an investment of some $20 billion in research has made it almost bankrupt. Several companies now claim greatly improved driving range and Tesla has sold more than 2,00,000 of their very beautiful but expensive cars. But these sales have been made only to countries that have a good infrastructure for charging.
Electric cars are not the only choice. Hydrogen cars are also a good option and can continue to use a conventional internal combustion engine. However, the gas is highly explosive, so the compressed gas has to be in a strong, accident-proof cylinder. They offer a good driving range between fills, but filling stations are still necessary and a city, state or country has to first provide infrastructure for these vehicles to become viable. EVs have two more advantages. Unlike a conventional car with some 5,000 parts, an EV has very few. It just has an electric motor, steering, suspension, brakes and a body. Secondly, EVs are far more efficient than conventional engines that waste about 70 percent of their energy in the process of cranking up. Therefore, though they need energy, the demand is much lower.
In India, there are other measures that can be taken to reduce pollution. Schoolbuses are only busy for a few hours each day and every school can easily and cheaply set up charging stations. City buses and taxis also can be offered swappable battery packs that can be quickly and easily changed at swapping stations. Metered charging points can be installed at car parks in residential and other places where car owners leave them overnight or for long periods.
The battery pack costs about 40 percent of the price of an EV. The expensive lithium ion batteries hold a bigger charge and are more compact. Many vehicles like e-rickshaws still use the heavy lead acid batteries that become polluting when they need to be scrapped after a few years. In India, two-wheelers account for about 80 percent of the vehicle numbers and even if their carbon footprint is much smaller, they still account for roughly 40 percent of atmospheric pollution.
Like it or not, climate change is going to cost all of us a huge amount very soon. And the cost of accelerating the change to EVs will be worthwhile.