In the Capital, EVs are igniting the mobility landscape
With central and state governments working in tandem, a startup ecosystem driving this change, and Venture Capital funds ensuring investment, there is a city-wide revolution taking place. However, hurdles remain which require immediate solutions
President John F Kennedy, while delivering a convocation address in 1959, remarked, “when written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters: One represents danger and one represents opportunity.” This twist sits well in the Indian context of air pollution.
Twenty-five years ago, a looming crisis in the national Capital saw the intervention of the Supreme Court, forcing the hand of the government to embrace cleaner fuels. A swanky fleet of blazing red low-floor Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses was inducted by the Delhi Transport Corporation, ahead of the commonwealth games. New registrations of diesel-run auto rickshaws and taxis were banned in the capital. Indraprastha Gas Limited was established with a mandate to set up a network of CNG pumps across the city. The expectation was that CNG would become the fuel of the future.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.
The transition was slow and painful. The adoption of CNG buses remained a Delhi-centric phenomenon, while other cities continued with diesel buses. The problem of pollution abated for some time, but assumed menacing proportions every winter.
However, something has changed over the last couple of years, which inspires renewed hope. Electric vehicles (EVs) are igniting the mobility landscape.
But what is different this time?
First, governments, both central and state, are acting in tandem. A cocktail of policies has induced rapid disruption. Generous capital subsidies offered to manufacturers by the central government, in sync with state policies offering tax breaks and purchase incentives for buyers, have brought down the prices. It is economics, more than altruism, that is the guiding principle for transition. Spiralling fuel costs, exacerbated by the Ukraine war have burnt a hole in middle-class pockets. EVs running on cheap power beat their competitors, hands-down.
Second, an effervescent startup ecosystem is driving this change. The new kids on the block, all under the age of 40, are hungry and ambitious. Engineers by training, not just from elite Indian Institutes of Technology, but second-rung colleges are becoming unicorns. The two-wheeler market segment, with the sharpest uptake, is dominated by startups. So is the charging ecosystem. Established players of conventional fuel vehicles are being jolted out of slumber.
Third, Venture Capital funds and angel investors are gung-ho on electric mobility. Even global oil majors such as British Petroleum and Shell are investing in Indian EV startups. Indian oil and gas companies have started sniffing around for opportunities. They have been mandated by the government to establish fast chargers and swapping stations in their pump stations.
Last, unlike the CNG vehicles, charging an EV is a plug-and-play affair and doesn’t need an elaborate dispensing station network.
The outcomes have surpassed expectations. In Delhi, 10% of new vehicles sold in 2021-2022 are EVs. The green number plates are now ubiquitous. In 2022, EV sales zoomed past CNG. Cargo deliveries are turning electric. The Delhi government has placed firm orders for 1,800 electric buses. Pale blue zero-emission buses can now be seen on several roads. Ambitious plans have been drawn to ramp up the bus fleet to 70% of the total fleet over the next three years. Coincidentally, this push comes at a time when India is set to assume the presidency of G20 for a year. The Government of India has also declared a goal to roll out a national programme for supporting the procurement of 50,000 electric buses.
So what could upset the apple cart?
Batteries, roughly a third of the cost of EVs, could be the Achilles' Heel. The supply chain has a huge external dependency. However, the good news is that an ambitious central programme will see cell manufacturing in India over the next two years. Regulatory standards for batteries and the challenge of interoperability are still a work in progress. Sporadic episodes of battery fires dissuade fence-sitters. Battery disposal and recycling framework are taking shape, though the numbers will drive innovation on this front.
A robust city-wide strategy for charging is crucial to overcome this anxiety of range. In Delhi, multiple models are in play, both on public and private land, with generous incentives for home charging thrown in. A city charging strategy released recently targets the installation of 18,000 chargers by 2024. Charging infrastructure is also being set up along national highways to encourage inter-city movement. Battery swapping is a recent entrant. Swapping stations are springing up at mom-and-pop stores, where two-wheelers offload drained out the battery in exchange for fully charged ones, all in a matter of minutes.
Naysayers argue that the entire model is premised on energy generated by fossil fuels. In a way, the EV shift is simply a pollution swap. Air quality improvement in the city is being achieved at the expense of coal being burnt elsewhere. Undeniably, the demand on the grid for power will go up as vehicles turn electric. Fleet owners have already started looking at local solar-based charging solutions for a truly zero-carbon footprint. The government is also mulling local solar installations for powering the switch to green mobility.
We are witnessing unprecedented “creative destruction”. The movement would gain momentum through a robust government-industry-research partnership. Innovative outreach and communication models would help in myth-busting. This could well turn out to be India’s semiconductor moment. We cannot let it slide.
Ashish Kundra (IAS) is principal secretary, transport, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi
The views expressed are personal