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Time for a hard look before Delhi takes an electric bus leap

Delhi government recently told the Supreme Court that it wanted to add 1,000 electric buses to its fleet, but a switchover will take a lot more than just buying and putting e-buses on the road.

delhi Updated: May 22, 2018 18:07 IST
Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
public transport,electric buses,Delhi
A 2016 file photo of a DTC electric bus under the Delhi government’s ministry of transport. (Virendra Singh Gosain/ Hindustan Times)

Suffering from the worst air pollution in the world, Delhi recently told the Supreme Court that it would buy 1,000 electric buses with the funds collected from diesel trucks as an environment compensation charge.

While maintaining that it was not against Delhi getting e-buses for its public transit fleet, the SC-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) last week raised concerns about the procurement, maintenance and infrastructure enhancements required to run these battery-powered vehicles.

The Delhi government responded to EPCA’s criticism saying it has not, in fact, completed the technical detailing of the project. But considering its poor record on public transport upgrades — at 5,429 buses, Delhi’s bus fleet it at an eight-year-low — the government will have to do extensive homework before it takes the leap.

Electric buses come with multiple benefits for a city like Delhi. They have zero tailpipe emissions. They also offer quieter and smoother rides and reduce the fuel budget drastically. But a switchover takes a lot more than just buying and putting e-buses on the road. The biggest challenge is to keep them running.

Last year, China’s Shenzhen became the first city in the world to own a fully electric fleet of 16,359 buses. But it was not easy to shift from diesel to e-buses, pointed out areport by World Resource Institute-China (WRI).

Compared to diesel buses, e-buses cost two to four times upfront. They need the infrastructure to support consistent charging. Their batteries need to be replaced at least once during their lifetime, which can cost nearly half of a vehicle’s price. Not surprisingly, it took the Shenzhen administration eight years to fix these back-end issues.

The WRI listed four strategies that Shenzhen implemented successfully. Maybe these are something for authorities in Delhi to consider.

First, the national and local subsidies closed the cost gap between e-buses and diesel buses. Till 2016, an e-bus was getting more than half of the vehicle’s price in government subsidy.

Second, instead of buying buses on government subsidy, operators had the option to lease out buses from manufacturers, thus avoid long-term lock-in.

Third, an efficient charging infrastructure was put in place. Because of their shorter driving range and recharging needs, Shenzhen needed to double the fleet size. But it optimised its operations by setting up an extensive charging system. According to WRI report, at present, there is one charging outlet for every three buses. All e-buses are charged fully overnight when electricity prices are low and recharged at terminals during off-peak travel hours.

Fourth, Shenzhen overcame the concerns over battery maintenance with a lifetime manufacturer warranty for vehicles and batteries. Operational risks are distributed among bus operators, manufacturers, utility companies and other service providers. For example, it is the electric bus manufacturers — and not the operators — who must maintain batteries and scrap old diesel buses.

With all its promises, the e-bus operation is not entirely green until it sources power from green energy. Despite China’s large-scale interventions in building solar and wind power infrastructure, most of the energy required for its e-buses comes from the grid that it essentially coal-based.

One reason for that is the inadequate transmission facility to dispatch green energy to the charging points, says associate director of WRI-India’s energy programme Deepak Krishnan, while adding that China will clean its grid faster than India, thanks to the former’s large investments in renewable energy. As far as the e-bus infrastructure goes, Shenzhen has already made small interventions such as using solar power in its bus depots and even charging few buses.

Delhi procures 80% of its power from thermal plants and gets as little as 1% from renewable sources. But, as Krishnan suggests, the government could learn from Delhi Metro, which through an open access agreement with a solar electricity plant in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, will soon source enough power to meet almost 80% of its daytime energy requirements.

For a car-choked, asphyxiating Delhi, a green public fleet is a dream investment. But the project requires strong civic commitment to see it through. Having long squandered the advantage of switching to CNG in 2002, India’s car capital cannot afford to waste another opportunity. And while we hope the government does its homework on e-buses right, it must not give up on resuscitating the humble CNG bus service yet.

First Published: May 21, 2018 17:13 IST