Cutting down tailpipe emissions with e-vehicles


At nearly 55%, electricity generation in India is primarily through coal. So like in the case of the U.S and China, net reduction in carbon emission will not be much even when if there is large-scale adoption of electric vehicles in India. Still, cities and towns using electric vehicles in large numbers will see a reduction in exhaust-pipe emissions. Ten of the 14 worst polluted cities in the world are in India, so e-vehicles will make a difference.

On May 6, 2019, Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons invested in Ola Electric Mobility Pvt Ltd. Ola Electric is undertaking several pilot programmes including charging solutions, battery swapping stations, and deploying 2- and 3-wheeler electric vehicles. Will Ola Electric’s initiative provide the spark to meet India’s ambitious goal of having 30% electric vehicles by 2030?

What is India’s policy for electric vehicles?

While carmakers in the rest of the world have been focusing on electric cars in the premium segment (costing over Rs.1 million), India is targeting small vehicles. The reason for this is, according to NITI Aayog, 79% of vehicles on Indian roads are two-wheelers, while three-wheelers and cars costing less than Rs. 1 million account for 4% and 12%, respectively. Concentrating on small electric vehicles will help meet domestic demand and place India in a “position of global leadership”.

While China, the U.S. and a few European countries offer various subsidies up to 40% to encourage uptake of electric cars, India wants to offer non-fiscal incentives. Credits will be offered based on carbon dioxide emissions per km as well as vehicle efficiency. While manufacturers exceeding the emission targets will be required to purchase credits, those meeting them will be rewarded. The price of the credit will be decided by the market. This approach will make electric vehicles and those with low-emission cheaper and the polluting vehicles expensive.

In the next five years, India aims to have at least 15% of the vehicles on the road to be electric. On February 28, 2019, India announced the second phase of the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME-2) scheme with an outlay of Rs.10,000 crores for a period of three years.

To encourage faster adoption, incentive will be provided upfront on purchase of an electric vehicle. The scheme will support 10 lakh 2-wheelers, 5 lakh 3-wheelers, 55,000 4-wheelers and 7,000 buses. While the focus will be on private vehicles for 2-wheelers, it will be for public transport and commercial purpose in incentive in the case of 3- and 4- wheelers. The scheme’s focus is on establishing charging infrastructure and Make in India.

What’s the driving range of electric vehicles?

The driving range of electric cars using lithium ion battery, which is the most widely used battery worldwide, is between 200 and 300 km per charge. The driving range in a city is typically 25-30 km per day. Battery technology to increase driving range and energy density has been and will continue to be the focus area in the coming years.

The most important determinant will be the lifespan of the battery. As per current battery technology, its lifetime will be shorter than rest of the vehicle. According to the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, some car manufacturers in developed countries are offering an eight-year or 1,60,000 km warranty on batteries.

How long will it take to charge the battery?

Currently, batteries used in electric cards have capacities of 50 kWh and can be charged overnight using the existing power supply available at homes. Like in the case of batteries in mobile phones, batteries used in electric vehicles can be fast charged using 7 and 22 kW supply. Charging stations at service stations have 50 and 120 kW supplies and battery can charge batteries in 20-30 minutes. But fast charging causes overheating and degradation, and frequent fast charging reduces battery life.

In a first, a 9.6 km stretch of a highway in Autobahn near Frankfurt, Germany has 670-volt overhead cables that will allow electric trucks to draw power and recharge the batteries as they drive. Two more eHighway tracks are being built — northern region of Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg, in southwest Germany.

Will electric vehicles reduce carbon emission?

At nearly 55%, electricity generation in India is primarily using coal. Hydroelectric generation is 13% and renewable energy sources including small hydro projects, wind and solar, accounts for about 21%. So like in the case of the U.S and China, net reduction in carbon emission will not be much even when if there is large-scale adoption of electric vehicles in India. This is unlike France and UK, where non-fossil fuel is major source of electricity generation. However, cities and town using electric vehicles in large numbers will see a reduction in exhaust-pipe emissions, particularly particulate matter. This will be important in the case of India which is home to 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

What will be the fate of used batteries?

Lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles can be recycled. According to the Financial Times, China and European Union already have in place rules that make carmakers responsible for recycling their batteries. In July 2016, Elon Musk had tweeted that the Tesla’s Gigafactory battery factory in Nevada will recycle lithium ion battery.

Li-ion batteries use a “variety of chemical processes, making it difficult to develop standardised recycling”. Battery recycling will become an industry by itself by 2025 when used batteries will become plentiful. Eaton, a UK-based company is already selling used electric batteries for reuse as household batteries.

Will more electric vehicles lead to grid problem?

It cannot be denied that when the number of electric vehicles on the road increases sharply, the demand for power to charge the batteries will shoot up. There is a good possibility that this might cause spikes in power demand. According to Nature, peak demand on the transformer can rise as much as 60% if all homes in a small neighbourhood of six homes charge the batteries at the same time. The quantum of demand spike at a large scale in not known. One way to overcome this is by charging the vehicle during non-peak time.

Theoretically, it is possible for parked electric vehicles to return power to the grid. This could reduce or minimise the fluctuations in the grid. But for this to happen, bi-directional charging points are needed.

Another possibility in the distant future in many countries including India is when renewable sources such as wind farm and solar energy contribute a large percentage of power to the grid. Since renewable energy sources by default are not continuous, large batteries capable of storing and supplying energy smoothly or when the demand peaks will be ideal. And this is becoming a reality. According to a report in Nature, a Tesla battery used in a local wind farm in South Australia for storing and supplying power when the demand peaks has been able to repay one-third of the investment made on the battery in a matter of just one year.

Is there enough cobalt to meet the demand?

In lithium ion batteries, cobalt is a key component of the cathode (positive electrode). Cobalt plays a pivot role in preventing battery overheating and provides stability to the battery thus allowing charging and discharging over many years. Cobalt is a by-product of mining nickel and copper. About 60% of world’s supply of cobalt comes from Democratic Republic of Congo, which uses child labour for mining. As battery technology evolves, the amount of cobalt used may reduce or even stop. In May last year, Tesla’s battery cell supplier Panasonic Corp said it has already “substantially cut down” cobalt usage and is already “aiming to achieve close to zero usage of cobalt in the near future”.

Published in The Hindu on May 12, 2019