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Electric Vehicles in India – A study

By on April 6, 2021 with 0 Comments  

For any disruptive technology, there is a tipping point—a point in time where it seems certain that the disruptive technology would become mainstream. Electric vehicles (EV) can also be considered as one of such ‘disruptive technologies.’

As we will understand in this article, electric vehicles (EV) are on their path to revolutionize the automobile industry. But how close or how far we are to this tipping point is highly contentious given the challenges associated with the EV.

Human ingenuity throughout history has shown remarkable resilience to overcome challenges. And on a personal level, I feel the same would happen with electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles (EV) are major challengers to the mainstream internal combustion (IC) engine-driven vehicles that work on petrol or diesel. But are electric vehicles better than conventional IC-engine vehicles? How energy efficient are they? How much cheaper (or costlier) will it be to own and drive an electric vehicle? And how do they fare when it comes to mitigating pollution?

We’ll address all these questions one by one in this article.

Why is there so much interest in electric vehicles?

India homes 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. After the US and China, India is the third-largest carbon-emitting country in the world. Although petrol/diesel-based vehicles are not the only culprits in polluting our cities, they still significantly contribute to polluting the air.

More than 99% of vehicles running in India presently use petrol or diesel. India is one of the biggest importers of oil and petroleum products. We have a very little reservoir of oil to serve our needs. Thus, we have to heavily depend on imports to meet our petroleum fuel needs which affect our foreign reserves.

Oil import is one of the major culprits of the weakening of our currency (rupee). If we can somehow get rid of this oil dependence, our country will come out of these shackles of large oil import bills and progress towards the path of self-dependence or Atmanirbhar Bharat in terms of energy requirement.

How we can do that? Using electric vehicles. Electricity is an energy source which we can produce internally without depending much on other countries.

The unique automobile industry of India

For electric inspiration, it is tempting to look at Teslas and Volkswagens of the west. But the structure of the automobile market and consumer needs here in India is very different.

Two typical characteristics dominate the Indian automobile industry. First, preference for smaller size vehicles. That has to probably do with the high population density in India. The second is affordability. That is mostly because our per capita income is low compared to the developed nation of the west.

If we study automobile sales of the past few years, we will notice that nearly 80% of the sales are coming from two-wheelers. Cars on the other hand just contribute around 15%. So, the focus of India should be on electric scooters and bikes first as they contribute to nearly 70-80% of vehicles in India. This article too will primarily cover two-wheeled electric vehicles.

Petrol vs Electric

Comparing energy efficiencies

Internal combustion engine (ICE) which is at the heart of conventional petroleum-operated vehicles has paltry energy efficiency. Only 20-25% of the energy from the fuel (petrol or diesel) is converted into meaningful energy which drives the vehicle. Rest is lost in the form of heat and other energy.

On the other hand, at the heart of an electric vehicle is a battery. Electric vehicles (EV) using a setup of batteries, motors, and controllers are much more efficient than an internal combustion engine. You can safely say that an EV would convert 80-90% of the energy stored in the electrical form in the battery to run the vehicle. So, when it comes to extracting energy from fuel, electric vehicles are around 4 times more efficient. But wait that’s not all…

Comparing energy density

It’s not just the engine efficiency of fuel conversion which one should look at. There are a couple of other important parameters which need to be taken into account. One of them is energy density. On the energy density parameter, electric vehicles fare far below gasoline-fueled vehicles and this is the area that will need a major innovation for EV adoption.

In a conventional vehicle, you have a fuel tank wherein you fuel petrol or diesel. In the case of an electric vehicle, the fuel tank or the container for energy is the battery. How much energy this battery store is usually specified in Wh (Watt-hour) or KWh (Kilowatt-hour).

To understand what KWh means let’s take an example of a bulb of 30-Watt power. Now, if you keep this 30-Watt bulb lighted for one hour it would consume 30 Watt-hour of energy. 1000 Watt makes 1 Kilowatt, so in KWh terms, this bulb would consume 0.03 KWh. This “KWh” represents the unit of energy which you are charged for in the electricity bills. The cost per unit of electricity varies with states and electricity distributors in India. You can use our calculator to check the electricity tariff. Typically the cost of electricity comes to around 6 Rs per unit (KWh) in India. Again, this is just a typical cost and it can vary anything between 2 Rs to 15 Rs.

Coming back to the battery, the problem is that it is simply too heavy compared to a tank (even if a fully petrol-filled tank is considered). Or in other words battery stores much less energy per unit weight (or per unit volume) when compared to a similar size tank filled petrol or diesel.

The energy density of petrol vs electric battery

An energy density parameter comes in handy to assess how much is energy stored per unit weight. It is specified in Watts-hour per kilogram (Wh/Kg). The energy density of petrol and diesel is around 12,000 Wh/kg. In comparison, the energy density of typical lithium-ion batteries which are used in electric vehicles is approximately 300 Wh/kg. So, in a way a petrol or a diesel stores much more energy per unit weight; or even per unit volume.

But the good thing is over the past few years, engineers significantly improved the energy density of batteries. In 2011 energy density used to 80 Wh/kg which is now improved to above 300 Wh/kg in 2021. But still, it is a long way to go if it has match energy density offered by petrol/diesel.

Comparing moving parts

Another important difference between ICE vehicles and electric vehicles is in the number of moving parts. ICE vehicles can have thousands of moving parts. If you own a vehicle you know that are so many things inside the vehicle which can malfunction. On the other hand, electric vehicles have very few moving parts. They have just around 20-30 moving parts which make the design of EV quite straightforward and maintenance easier.

Comparing running cost

Kitna deti hai? (How much it gives?): this used to be the tagline of Maruti Suzuki’s car advertisement. This tagline indeed very aptly captured the mindset of Indian automobile consumers. The typical Indian consumer is cost-conscious of fuel expenses; because a big chunk of money would be spent on it during the vehicle’s lifetime. Moreover, over the past few years, petrol-diesel has served as a soft target for the government to collect taxes. A small hike in crude oil prices is largely amplified because of heavy taxations on petroleum products.

As mentioned earlier, the Indian automobile is heavily dominated by two-wheelers. So, let us look at what would be the expenses of running an electric two-wheeler. There are several new companies in the electric vehicle space like Ather Energy, Okinawa, Ampere, Evolet, etc. Even established names like Bajaj and TVS have jumped on the electric bandwagon. So, the cost of running an electric vehicle will vary with models. Nevertheless, we’ll pick one example to understand how much money can one expect to shell out if he/she decides to opt for an electric vehicle.

To calculate expenses of running an electric vehicle we will need to know a few things: the battery capacity, the range it offers on a complete charge, and electricity cost.

Let us try to understand with an example of an Ather 450x electric scooter. It has a battery capacity of 2.6 KWh. With 2.6 KWh (or 2600 Wh) it gives a range of 85 kilometres in Eco mode (at least that’s what the company claims). For the uninitiated, Eco mode is the most fuel-efficient mode wherein acceleration and peak speed is lower than normal but the range scooter would offer would be the best. Thus, at best, Ather 450x consumes 30 Watt per kilometre or 0.03 units of electricity per kilometre.

This is what the company claims and in real life you can expect more power consumption than just 30 Watt/km. Moreover, batteries are around 80% to 90% efficient in converting the stored energy. So, you can roughly assume Ather 450X would consume 0.035 to 0.04 units of electricity per kilometre. As mentioned earlier, electricity cost varies across India depending upon the state, phase, and whether it is used in a residential or industrial setup. Assuming 6 rupees of electricity cost per unit per cost kilometre, the expense of operating Ather 450X would come to 20 to 25 paisa per kilometre.

Typical ICE-based scooters are advertised to come with a 60 KMPL fuel efficiency. And petrol price at the moment is above 90 rupees/litre in most of India. A typical cost of running a petrol-based scooter comes out to 1.5 rupees per kilometre if we take 60 KMPL mileage at its face value. Again, this is what the company claims. In real life scenario, mileage would come down and per kilometre, the cost would become exceed 2 rupees per kilometre. So, fuel cost in petrol-based scooters is roughly 8 to 10 times higher than electric counterpart (assuming electricity price of 6 Rs/unit and petrol price of 90 Rs/litre).

Problems with electric vehicles

Although the fuel cost might cheer you up, but replacing your existing petrol scooter with an electric scooter isn’t a straightforward option. The first thing you need to do is typically shell out a lot more money upfront. Roughly 1.5 times than conventional scooters. Although you’ll get some electric scooters at the prices comparable to Activa or Access or even less, but then their battery capacity, range, speed and acceleration would be quite less.

Inconvenience of charging

And then there is another big problem with electric vehicles. It’s charging. In a conventional vehicle whenever you run out of fuel, you simply go to the fuel station and get it fueled. Fueling petrol or diesel at a petrol station doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes. But the same cannot be done with electric charging.

Most of the electric scooters need a few hours to fully charge. Typically, around 5 hours. Yes, some of them come with “fast charging” capabilities but still, you would need to wait 45-60 minutes to charge it to 50% to 80% capacity.

Imagine you are on a long trip in your electric vehicle and suddenly you are nearing zero battery level. Even if you are lucky enough to find a fast-charging station (which at the moment are very few and far off), will you be okay waiting for an hour or so? No, right? The convenience which petrol vehicles offer of refueling in seconds or minutes is not possible with electric vehicles at the moment.

Fast charging isn’t exactly the solution

Also, one might be tempted by fast charging technology. But there are heavy tradeoffs of using it. Although it charges the battery initially at a rapid pace, it leads to faster wear and tear of the battery. This means your battery would deteriorate faster if you frequently fast charge it.

Another thing to understand is that during summers temperatures in India go beyond 40oC in many places. Fast charging batteries in outdoor at such a high temperature would be detrimental to battery life.

The dearth of electric infrastructure

The biggest problem with battery-operated vehicles is that the infrastructure needed for them is missing at the moment. To charge your electric scooter many manufacturers offer a special charging plug. Now, if you live in a bungalow or own a garage this should work out. But if you live in a flat of a multistoried building, charging a vehicle at home becomes difficult. Many societies are hesitant in permitting electric vehicles to be charged in society’s compound. They fear that it’ll cause fires. Although that’s not really the case.

If you see petrol is highly combustible and much more dangerous. But we have learned how to handle petrol. So, on a personal level, I feel it safe to charge the vehicle. The issue though is you need special charging points. Many manufacturers also offer an adapter that fits into the regular socket for charging. But for a person residing on the 10th floor of a building and absence of charging infrastructure downstairs would make charging electric vehicle a daunting task.

Companies like Ather and others have set up charging stations in some cities. Again, charging points are limited and one needs to be close to avail charging with convenience.

A better solution: battery swapping

If we can get the convenience of quickly refuelling electric vehicles like petrol vehicles then the adoption of EVs will definitely skyrocket. Well, fast charging is not really the solution. Rather a better solution to this problem would be to have a large infrastructure of battery swapping stations.

So, the idea is that you’ll purchase a vehicle without the battery. You’ll be surprised to know that battery constitutes 40-50% of the total cost. If we can do away with batteries, the cost price of the vehicle would come down significantly.

Then who will give you batteries you may ask? Well, battery swapping stations would own the batteries and they would give you batteries on rent/lease. So basically, you take a full charge battery from the battery swapping outlet pay them the cost of providing you a full-charged battery. When you are about to run out of battery you return the battery and get a fully charged battery at some cost. This is just a theoretical business idea. If can be implemented and achieves profitability, we will witness an electric revolution on Indian roads.

Charging in a controlled environment

Another key advantage of this mode of operation is that batteries would be charged in a controlled environment. Remember we discuss temperatures in India that can go past 40oC which isn’t good for charging batteries and hampers their longevity? Professionals would be involved in handling batteries and charging would take place in a controlled environment so that batteries last longer.

Environmental effects of electric vehicles

So far, we have talked about energy efficiency and the cost of operating an EV. But how does it fare when it comes to reducing carbon emission? Electric vehicles are definitely eco-friendlier than gasoline-fueled counterparts. They emit much lesser greenhouse gases and air pollutants. In fact, a pure electric vehicle does not have a tailpipe, which means no carbon dioxide emission while riding/driving. Although running an electric vehicle helps in reducing the carbon footprint significantly but there’s a catch.

Manufacturing electric vehicle consumes more energy. Moreover, many people argue that though electric vehicles may not directly pollute as much as conventional vehicles but indirectly electricity-generating power plants would. That argument becomes valid for countries like India and China which primarily depend on coal for electricity generation.

You see coal is a fossil fuel and extracting energy from it releases a higher amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases. In countries like France or Sweden where renewable sources like nuclear or hydropower are the main sources for electricity generation, electric vehicles turned out to be a much cleaner alternative to petrol-fueled vehicles.

Good thing is that in India too we are striving to use more renewable sources to generate electricity. In the future, we can expect a larger share of electricity generation coming from cleaner sources like solar, winds, tides, etc.

Conclusion

All in all, there is huge potential for electric vehicles in the future. How quick would be the adoption remains debatable.

The infrastructure needed for electric vehicles to smoothly ply on roads is very nascent at the moment. A lot of work needs to be done in this area. Perhaps battery swapping could come out as a good solution because charging vehicles at home or on the highway isn’t always feasible/convenient. The government too is taking efforts to nudge consumers to buy electric vehicles by giving subsidies, tax exemptions, and other financial incentives. The focus should be on setting up electric infrastructure and ensuring that electricity generation comes from renewable sources of energy.

About the Author:
Hussain Kanchwala is an Electronics Engineer from University of Mumbai. As an Analyst at BijliBachao he keeps a tab on latest technologies in gadgets and appliances, tracks businesses of white goods companies and monitors the consumer behavior. With a background in engineering, penchant for detail, and flair for writing he regularly write reviews about brands and their products. .

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