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Coal trips India’s electric car revolution

Twenty-four hours before the world’s most-attended auto show began, actor Rahul Bose had decided his next car: A four-door Reva NXR made in Bangalore.

india Updated: May 21, 2010 10:35 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Twenty-four hours before the world’s most-attended auto show began, actor Rahul Bose had decided his next car: A four-door Reva NXR made in Bangalore.

“I was just waiting for the four-door version, and now it’s here,” Bose, an avid spokesman for climate-change issues, said of the latest version of India’s biggest-selling electric car.

With pressure growing globally on the automobile industry to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, it’s no coincidence that the 10th edition of India’s Auto Expo will open on Tuesday with the biggest-ever showing of electric, hybrid and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles:

A UK company will showcase the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled, zero-emission motorcycle.

Toyota — the world's largest auto-maker — will launch its petrol-electric hybrid Prius sedan.

India’s top auto companies (Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors, Hyundai Motor and Mahindra and Mahindra) will unveil electric vehicles.

Vehicles that do not use carb-on-based fossil fuels, petrol or diesel generate great enthusiasm in an age of rising carbon emission and global temperat-ures.

They could attract crowds to rival the 1.8 million who turned out in 2008, where the star attraction was the Nano.

But the companies themselves admit a growing skepticism over next-gen vehicles.

“Our problem in India is electricity,” Maruti Suzuki Chairman R.C. Bhargava told the Hindustan Times. “If you don’t have electricity, and if your electricity anyway comes from coal, I am wondering, what objective that (electric vehicles) would meet?”

“We are also enthusiastic at Maruti-Suzuki, and our engineers are very keen, but no one has given me a satisfactory answer to this question.”

After decades of false starts, new technology is allowing electric cars (1 lakh may be on India’s roads by the end of the year, up from 85,000 now) to be driven farther than ever before at a running cost a third cheaper conventional cousins.

The new Reva, for instance, has a claimed range of 160 km. That compensates for the higher costs of electric cars: Typically Rs 1 lakh or more than petrol- or diesel-driven vehicles.

But in this age of globalisation, two complex, long-term dilemmas face India: Coal and Bolivia.

One, with more than 70 per cent of the nation’s electricity coming from coal-fired plants — implicated in warming the planet — tax breaks and other incentives to electric vehicles might actually further environmental damage.

Two, most electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries (tiny amounts are vital to power laptops and cellphones), but if lithium use explodes as it’s projected to, the biggest hurdle comes from a barren, salt desert in the heart of South America.

The global market for automotive lithium batteries is forecast at $70 billion (Rs 3.3 lakh crore) annually by 2020, dwarfing the lithium market for cellphones and laptops, currently at $7 billion (Rs 33,000 crore), according to Ener1, a leading Norwegian-US battery maker.

If that is to happen, someone will have to crack the Salar-de-Uyuni problem.

More than half the world’s reserves of lithium, the lightest metal used by industry, come from the great salt expanse, the Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, a landlocked country where the government of its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, hasn’t yet sealed a lithium-extraction deal and has gained a reputation for reneging on contracts.

Now, a lithium shortage is forecast for 2015, the year by when India’s auto sales are set to double.

“The consumers are ready, the technology is better than ever,” said a senior executive at another car major, refusing to be quoted so as not to “demoralize” company engineers priming an electric-car for launch this week. “But I don’t think India is ready.”