This is why India’s plan to put 6 mn Electric Vehicles on the road will fail

Anand Murali June 29, 2017 12 min

Story Highlights

  • If India is to achieve even a fraction of its EVs target of six million EVs on its roads by 2020, it needs to reboot its charging infrastructure
  • In India, charging sockets are mostly installed at the residences of EV owners. This is supplemented by stations at public spaces like parking lots, office complexes, restaurants
  • An alternative to charging an EV is swapping the nearly depleted battery for a fully charged one at the station

Owning an electric car in India feels like having a vehicle on a leash. Your driving distance is always limited by the charge your battery holds because you will not be able to charge it until you are back home. That’s the electric charging infrastructure in the country for you.

Range, battery charge time, and the distance between charge stations, to be sure, are concerns every electric vehicle (EV) buyer should consider anywhere in the world. If users can’t get from point A to B without being worried about running out of charge, then they ought to think twice before getting an EV.

In India, it is complex. Venture investor Manish Singhal upgraded his electric car three months ago only to realise his driving distance has reduced by up to 37.5%. “My previous model was a Reva e2o which used to give around 80 kms with AC and traffic. Whereas the new model (Mahindra) e2oPlus is quite horrible. It gives me 50-70 km range,” says the founding partner of Pi Ventures. That’s not all. What has frustrated Singhal is this: “The charging takes too long. There are not enough charge points,” he says. “A whole lot of things need to change here.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg cliche playing out. Without charging infrastructure, ecofriendly diehards will be the only ones buying EVs. Without sales of EVs ramping up, no electricity distribution utility or a third party come forward to set up charging infrastructure  

Indeed. If India is to achieve even a respectable fraction of its EVs targets, it needs to reboot its charging infrastructure. The country has a target of at least six million EVs on its roads by 2020.

According to a 2016 report, India is estimated to have around four lakh electric two wheelers, one lakh e-rickshaws and a few thousand electric cars — about half a million EVs in all.

It’s a chicken-and-egg cliche playing out. Without charging infrastructure, ecofriendly diehards will be the only ones buying EVs. Without sales of EVs ramping up, no electricity distribution utility or a third party come forward to set up charging infrastructure.

At a low percentage of EV adoption, says Chetan Maini, the founder of Reva, India’s first electric car company, people make do with charging points at their homes and offices. “When you think of mass adoption, it’s important to have appropriate charging infrastructure in place. Typically, you’ve seen countries that have had the better charging infrastructure have had higher vehicle adoption,” says Maini, today vice chairman of SUN Mobility.

“When you think of mass adoption, it’s important to have appropriate charging infrastructure in place. Typically, you’ve seen countries that have had the better charging infrastructure have had higher vehicle adoption” — Chetan Maini, founder of Reva  

“Charging infrastructure is not the only driver but it is an important driver for EV adoption,” he adds. Other factors include the cost of EVs, dovetailing incentives with green policies, consumer education, and preferential policies.

How the West and the East was won

Oslo, the capital of Norway, is today considered the EV Capital of the world with the highest per capita number of all-electric cars in the world. In 2016, nearly 30% of the vehicles sold in Norway were electric — prompting predictions that 2017 was going to be an inflection point for EVs.

Also read: SoftBank is transforming Ola into an electric carmaker with Toyota: Source

One of the key reasons for Norway’s high level of EV adoption is its charging infrastructure —  one of the best in the world. Last year, it opened the world’s largest, fast-charging station which can charge up to 28 vehicles in about half an hour.

China is the world leader when it comes to electric vehicle sales by volume. In the 11 months through November 2016, over 846,447 passenger and commercial EVs  were sold in the country, according to a report. China also had plans to have over 5 million electric vehicles (New Energy Vehicles or NEV as china calls them) on its roads by 2020—from the looks of it, it will easily surpass this goal.

EV-Tesla-power-charger
Tesla has over 861 Supercharger stations with 5,655 Superchargers installed across the globe

Gearing up for the shift, the State Grid Corporation of China, a state-owned electric utility, plans to install 100,000 charging stations along 11 major routes by 2020. This installation will cover 202 cities and 36,000 km of expressway.

Go back to the history of electric carmaker Tesla and you will see a deliberate focus on EV charging infrastructure. In 2012, even as it launched its Model S electric car, Tesla started installing charging stations with ‘Superchargers’ across North America for its customers.

These Superchargers were essentially the Tesla equivalent of fast charging ports with which the company wanted to help its customers minimise stops while driving long distance  

These Superchargers were essentially the Tesla equivalent of fast charging ports with which the company wanted to help its customers minimise stops while driving long distance. The Supercharger stations were located near restaurants, shopping centres and other public places near highways.

Tesla today has over 861 Supercharger stations with 5,655 Superchargers installed across the globe.

Even our tiny neighbour, Sri Lanka, where there is a big drive for EV adoption, has a better charging infrastructure with multiple charging partners.

What India has

India is clearly lagging far behind when it comes to setting up the basic infrastructure and a support system for getting its stated target of six to seven million EVs on Indian roads by 2020 — the goal India wants to achieve according to its National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 with some indigenisation of technology.

The government has not even standardised the specification of the Bharat Charger for EVs. In May this year, the Department of Heavy Industry (DHI) had formed a committee for standardisation for protocol of charging infrastructure in India and the committee had submitted its report for comments from stakeholders. The final date for comments for the project called Bharat Charger was May 22. Considering the delay in such standards coming out in the past we will have to wait and see if and/or when the final standards will be issued. Just for comparison, the comments for the drone regulation were closed more than a year ago and there has been no news about it since then.

Also read: Mahindra looks for tech partner for Made in China electric vehicles

To cut a long story short, we mostly find charging sockets installed in residences with EV ownership in India today. The infrastructure, if lucky, is further supplemented by charging stations at public spaces like parking lots, office complexes, restaurants and other such public spaces.

We mostly find charging sockets installed in residences with EV ownership in India today. The infrastructure, if lucky, is further supplemented by charging stations at public spaces like parking lots, office complexes, restaurants and other such public spaces  

“Charging infrastructure is an obvious answer. It is very important because consumers have a concern around range anxiety. What if I run out of charge… what do I do?” asks Maini.

In India, the EV market is dominated by electric two-wheelers with relatively fewer three- and four-wheelers plying the roads. The two-wheelers are mostly charged at residences and are used for limited city commute.

Shift the focus to four-wheelers. Mahindra and Volvo are the two main companies selling commercial plug-in and plug-in hybrid cars (the latter being EVs with back up fuel tanks) in the country. Of the two variants, charging stations are most crucial for the non-hybrid plug-in variety because there is no option of an alternate fuel to power the vehicle. Think of a car that is stuck on a forest road and even a fuel station one km away can’t help you move.

If you quickly browse through the the Mahindra charging stations on its website, you will see it seems to have just 80 charging stations across 10 cities in India.

If you can splurge up to Rs 1.25 crore on a Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid, the company will set up two charging points along with the purchase as per the customer’s requirement. But being the hybrid, the XC90 always has the option to fire up its internal combustion engine — supplied by an 50 litre petrol tank when it runs out of electric power, also extending its range.

The heavy lifting

Public transit vehicles is another segment where EVs can play a big role. Regional transport utilities including Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Navi Mumbai Municipal Transport, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, Himachal Road Transport Corporation, Thane Municipal Transport, and BEST Mumbai are in the process of acquiring a fleet of electric and hybrid buses.

The charging infrastructure for these will be set up by the respective organisations unlike in the case of public vehicles.

The app-based cab service Ola and Mahindra launched a pilot project in Nagpur recently, where they intend to deploy 200 electric vehicles for its cab-hire service. For now, 100 Mahindra e2OPlus electric vehicles have been deployed as part of this project.

EV-Electric-cars-charging-the-battery-
In India, the EV market is dominated by electric two-wheelers with relatively fewer three- and four-wheelers plying the roads

“If I look at the challenge to go all electric, it is important to take a step back and say electric vehicles are four times more efficient than gasoline vehicles… So, the question is if there is something that is four times better, why isn’t there a mass adoption?” asks Maini.

He gives the answer grouped in three buckets. One, he says, is that the cost of the vehicle is more expensive as compared to a gasoline vehicle mainly on account of the cost of batteries. Two is the range anxiety people have, Maini adds.

“The third concern is the long refuelling (recharging) times. Five to eight hours in regular charging or even one hour in the case of fast charging. A person today is used to less than a few minutes while refuelling and anything which is more feels like a very long time,” says Maini who feels that addressing these three issues correctly is key to mass adoption of EVs in India.

These three issues have an important interplay with infrastructure.

Third parties for charging

Apart from vehicle manufacturers, third party companies are also in the race to announce plans to set up charging infrastructure in the country.

National Thermal Power Corporation, or NTPC, India’s largest power generating company, plans to set up EV charging infrastructure and is said to be working on a plan to reduce the cost of setting up EV charging stations to around Rs1 lakh each according to a report.

Tata Power Delhi Distribution Ltd, has also announced plans to invest around Rs 100 crore to set up 1,000 charging stations for EVs across Delhi.

“It’s like the chicken and egg situation. If the demand is created even the private companies will jump in to set up this infrastructure” — Abdul Majeed, Partner at audit and consulting firm, PWC  

But these are just sporadic plans or initiatives and on the ground progress is yet to be seen. Some of the key requirements to be on track—to achieve the goal—are to establish standardised ‘charging infrastructure specifications’ and tariffs for charging.

There are others who believe that the charging infrastructure will start building up once a demand for the same is created. “It’s like the chicken and egg situation. If the demand is created even the private companies will jump in to set up this infrastructure,” says Abdul Majeed, Partner at audit and consulting firm, PWC. “I don’t see the charging infrastructure as a major challenge. Making people buy EVs is bigger challenge.”

Swappable batteries the solution?

Another alternative to charging an EV is swapping the nearly depleted battery for a fully charged one at the station. In the case of swappable batteries, the turnaround (charging) time is also quicker because all it takes to recharge a vehicle is swapping out the depleted battery for a recharged battery — very similar to the exchange of a LPG cylinder.

“If you are swapping your batteries then you reduce the time of recharge to a couple of minutes and also since multiple swaps can be done quickly there is no limitation of range,” he adds.

SUN Mobility plans to buy power from solar-based generating facilities and store it in batteries, as part of a network of energy storage devices that can be easily swapped in and out of vehicles at stations.

Hero Future Energies has also announced plans to launch a similar service of swappable batteries for EVs and said that it plans to set up solar-based charging stations for its depleted batteries.

In the case of swappable batteries, the turnaround (charging) time is also quicker because all it takes to recharge a vehicle is swapping out the depleted battery for a recharged battery — very similar to the exchange of a LPG cylinder  

The other big draw for swappable batteries is the capital cost of an EV. According to Maini batteries account for up to 30–50% of an electric car’s cost and a swappable battery system can bring down the cost of electric cars to as much as a petrol or diesel cars. With high volumes, they can even be potentially cheaper.

EVs, clearly, are the way to go for India, say experts. Every day, nearly 50,000 new motor vehicles are registered in the country with a 10% increase annually in the  past decade. According to a recent report by planning agency NITI Aayog, India can save around 64% of its anticipated passenger road-based mobility-related energy needs and 37% of carbon emissions in 2030 by relying on smart EVs.

India is also home to some of the most polluted cities and EVs are good way to tackle this challenge, especially if the power used to charge is generated from a renewable, clean source like solar.

Also read: Electric cars are ready to take over the world — and India


               

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