The electric path

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The electric path

At the ongoing Auto Expo, carmakers showcased a host of concepts. But potholes remain

Everywhere one walked at the 18th Auto Expo being held on the outskirts of Delhi in the impressive India Expo Mart, one saw electricity. Not because of the sparks that flew thanks to the stunning vehicles on display, although admittedly the lack of participation by some leading global manufacturers did rob this year’s Auto Expo of some sheen, but because it was, literally, electrifying. At almost every stall, car, two-wheeler and commercial vehicle manufacturers were showcasing their concept and future electric vehicles which they believe will be the future of mobility in India, and indeed the world. But the road to the future isn’t an eight-lane expressway like the road to the India Expo Mart; the road to the electric future in India is an unpaved one with a lot of potholes that it appears the industry and policy makers are gradually coming to appreciate this fact after some ambitious comments in the past year.

On one thing though there must be no doubt -- India has to drastically cut emissions and less vehicular emission is a significant part of that reduction. At the same time, India’s oil import bill remains a massive drain on the exchequer, even though higher sales of heavily taxed fuel products have been vital in funding the nation’s infrastructure push. The path India must take for need not necessarily be an electric one; it could even be one charged by thousands of Lithium-Ion cells. Because technologies are evolving fast, with innovative energy-storage solutions as well as other fuels apart from developments on internal combustion engines to enhance their thermal efficiency. Despite Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari threatening to ‘bulldoze’ existing car companies if they did not start working towards an electric future a few months ago, at recent conferences both the Minister and the Niti Aayog seem to have made a realistic assessment of the current situation on the road to electrification.

For one, India’s electricity mix currently continues to be severely biased towards thermal, and thermal generation from some of India’s domestic coal is high on sulphur and carbon. And despite improvements over the past decade, India’s electricity production remains insufficient to meet the needs of its citizens and industries. A wholescale shift from petroleum power to electric power will just shift pollution from one area to another. And with insufficient power, it will be impossible to give assurances to those who use personal transportation that they will not be left high and dry in the middle of nowhere without a power outlet. And if Lithium-Ion cells are the future power source, does India run the risk of becoming beholden to a new generation of resource bearing nations? And if electric vehicles are the future, a huge amount of infrastructure and policy changes need to be implemented now. That infrastructure is charging stations, a more powerful grid and developing renewable power sources alongside building the manufacturing base for electric vehicles with incentives to manufacturers of vehicles and batteries. More than that, a comprehensive disposal plan for the copious amounts of e-waste that will be generated from the vehicles needs to be formulated at the outset. If these changes are not effected now, we run the risk of being seen as an ‘all talk and no action’ nation. And those concepts at the exposition floor in Greater Noida will remain just concepts.

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