India needs a hybrid solution

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India needs a  hybrid solution

Making bombastic statements is not the way to change vehicle and emissions policy. India needs sensible low emission policy that combines the best of technology with affordability

After first threatening to bulldoze the Indian automotive industry to oblivion if they didn’t switch to electric vehicles, Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari seemed to make a meek retreat a few months later when the announcement was made that there would no electric vehicle policy for now. A caustic remark by a senior executive in the automotive industry said that the full electrification announcement seemed like a page out of the “Make in China” playbook rather than “Make in India.” Of course, a move to full electrification might have warmed the cockles of some activists in India, it would have decimated jobs; and ultimately jobs are what it is all about for this Government or any future Government.

A head-long rush into unplanned electrification would have not onlydevastated Indian industry and jobs but as many in the auto industry said in the aftermath of Gadkari’s announcement, in a country where 24x7 reliable electricity is still not a given other than in upper class pockets in urban areas, would India’s grid be able to produce the several Gigawatt hours of electricity needed to power a huge fleet of electric vehicles?

Keeping in mind that India sold three million passenger vehicles last year, that number is expected to touch 10 million by 2030. Even if 10 per cent of new cars sold in 2030 are electric cars, the power needed to charge them up would require several new power plants. India’s priority right now is to ensure that poor, impoverished households get electrified. Only then should it look towards making the shift towards powering the vehicles of the rich.

And it will be the Government’s job to develop that infrastructure; they could do it in partnership with energy companies and have a more friendly-mix of power on which front, India has been a leader, but that is just one half of the infrastructure dilemma. The other is: Who will build and who will pay for the charging infrastructure?

If India wants to have even a million electric cars sold every year, it will need to build at least one public charging station for every fourth vehicle, at least initially. And one in every five charging stations will need to be a “supercharger” — that is capable of charging a vehicle up to at least half charge in under half-an-hour. So, between the power infrastructure, the charging infrastructure, the manufacturing process  changes required, building of battery factories et al, for an electric vehicle ecosystem, all in a country with the size and population of India, one is talking of hundreds of billions of dollars that the Government will have to spend directly.

And then there are the indirect costs. The Government, in an attempt to boost electric car sales, has reduced the tax on such vehicles, possibly even made for free charging stations — all of which costs the exchequer. Electric car advocates across the world talk of massive incentives for such vehicles; and those have worked in developed economies but even there, with the massive capital costs of electric cars, subsidies on electric vehicles end up benefiting the rich more than the poor, defeating the very point of a subsidy.

However, this columnist does believe that India has no choice but to move towards a low-emissions future. Not only does the country lack much in the way of petroleum resources, it has a pollution problem too. And, therefore, planned moves should be made towards moving electrification. The Government must stop ignoring the potential of hybrid vehicles.

To start with, local area transport can be electrified. Many have spoken of public transportation as a solution but one has to understand that most public transportation corporations across the country are stressed for funds. With limited budgets and huge number of passengers, they cannot afford the luxury of electrification if they have to meet their primary objective and increasing the cost of public transportation is self-defeating in terms of carriage as the Delhi Metro has ably demonstrated for the rest of the country. So why not airports?

Delhi Airport transported 60 million passengers last year, several million of whom were transported by bus and had their luggage travel on a trolley hooked up to a tractor. What if all passenger buses and some ancillary equipment at the Delhi Airport and other major airports went electric? There might be a small drop in the ocean, but with booming air travel, one is talking of thousands of buses and tractors, and even even electric cars at airports.

This would lead to the development of some manufacturing expertise in electric vehicles and as aviation continues to boom, it would also allow the airlines to offer some sort of carbon offset for their fuel-burning aircraft.

And for the private vehicle owner, the low-hanging fruits of electric two-wheelers have not done very well. The reason for this is the fairly limited range of such vehicles and a complete lack of charging infrastructure. Electric rickshaws have done decently well in and round the Capital but these light-frame death-traps are barely regulated and there has been little or no consideration as to how millions of additional lead-acid batteries will be processed. Of course, in India, what we do not see barely concerns us, but chances are hundreds of people will die from lead poisoning as a result of the e-rickshaw boom and we would be kidding ourselves if we denied that.

But what about hybrids? The technology exists, it is available off-the-shelf today. It can dramatically bring down emissions and improve fuel-economy. Hybrid solutions available in some larger cars in India, such as Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, give them incredible range as well as the ability to be driven in all-electric mode in certain situations.

In Europe, some city centres might ban the internal combustion engine but when a vehicle has both a battery and an engine, there is no need to fear. And this solution will take away the single biggest fear of electric cars, that is, range anxiety. Because you can always tank it up and only charge it wherever you can find the infrastructure. Sure, without taxes, hybrid vehicles cost more than regular vehicles but less than all-electric vehicles.

However, mandarins in the North Block have a ridiculous 43 per cent tax on hybrid cars, no matter whether they’re big or small. Which kind of defeats the purpose of such vehicles. Nobody is asking for a cut, but tax hybrid cars at the same rate you tax the base vehicle it is based on. Or the Government could move to an European style emissions-based car taxation regime, which will encourage low-emission vehicles no matter what the engine.

Making bombastic statements is not the way to change vehicle and emissions policy. Rumour has it that an electric tax experiment launched with much fanfare in a city in India failed so badly because it took out the grid when all the taxis started to charge at night. Pilot projects and statements will take us nowhere and might have the effect of actually damaging India going forward. Sensible policies towards lower emissions will help Indian citizens, car owners and the Government.

(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)

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