INDIA recently announced a goal to produce and sell only electric cars (presumably including two and three wheelers) by 2030, chiefly aiming to reduce the petroleum import bill and running cost of vehicles, while simultaneously reducing air pollution with attendant health benefits and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement has been hailed the world over, but with several voices suggesting caution, and pointing to the many obstacles as well as requirements that such an ambitious target would entail for India in terms of technology, manufacturing capability, infrastructure and finances.
The declaration, with many related assumptions and linked policy recommendations, arise mostly from a study conducted by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a US-based non-profit think tank, for the Niti Aayog.
At the outset it must be clarified that, whereas many misleading headlines or media reports have interpreted the announcement to mean that India would have only electric cars on its roads by 2030, the actual declaration is quite different. If only electric cars are made and sold in 2030 onwards, this implies that petroleum based cars made in 2029 would still be in use till 2044 if the present 15 year life still prevails. So a complete replacement of petroleum driven cars would happen by, say, 2044 with declining numbers from 2030.
Even so, this is an extraordinarily high level of ambition, and needs to be put in perspective.
The number of motorised passenger vehicles in India at present is around 200 million, up from around 30 million in 2002. This is expected to increase to about 350 million by 2030, some estimates going as high as 500 million.
The Netherlands and Norway plan to phase out all petroleum based cars by 2025. But the size of even developing country India’s car market is around 15 times that of Norway. Germany currently has only a small fraction of electric cars in its total fleet, and wants to end sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, with one million on the road by 2020. China too is planning to shift to electric cars based on heavy subsidies to manufacturers, with a goal of putting seven million electric cars on the roads annually by 2025.
Globally, EV sales are currently around 0.8 million and, prior to the Indian announcement, were expected to reach just 30 million by 2030. Compared to this, electric vehicle (EV) sales in India were not even 1 per cent of total sales, with only 22,000 EVs sold in total, of which four-wheeler sales was only 2,000. India is also lagging far behind its own goal of making over 6-7 million electric or hybrid vehicles per year by 2020 as per its National Electric Mobility Mission Plan of 2013.
Power Minister Piyush Goyal, who has been spearheading the move till now, has said that the ministries of heavy industries, environment and petroleum along with the NITI Aayog are working on a detailed policy for promotion of electric vehicles. This policy would be of great interest, because this ambitious goal faces several and substantial challenges.
The biggest challenge would, of course, be cost to the consumer. This is a global problem relating to the speed of technology development and scale of roll-out, and not purely an Indian one, although costs in India are comparatively higher due to low levels of indigenisation, long supply chains and a weak domestic manufacturing ecosystem for EVs.
As an example, the cheapest EV in the Indian market is Mahindra’s e20 at Rs 7 lakhs plus taxes, for quite a basic car. Mahindra recently stopped e20 exports in the UK due to disappointing sales numbers of a small-sized vehicle that apparently did not meet customer requirements. Toyota is planning to sell its Model 3 in the US for $35,000 (Rs 22 lakhs) or around the cost of a Mercedes.
However, prices are expected to drop substantially over the next decade. Industry analysts expect EV prices to be on par with petroleum vehicles by 2022-25.
Price of EVs depends largely on cost of the batteries, that can account for 40 per cent of vehicle costs. Batteries are currently expensive, but costs are dropping quite quickly. Lithium-ion batteries cost around $600/kWhr (kilowatt-hour) in 2011, but are under $150/kWhr at present.
The number of battery makers is also rising sharply and volumes as well as performance are going up, driving down costs with better output. Battery production is expected to double by 2021 with a variety of consumers from EVs to grid storage system for renewable energy producers and distributors. Many battery-makers are also automobile manufacturers, such as Elon Musk’s Tesla with its famous ‘gigafactories,’ Germany’s Accumotive which is a subsidiary of Daimler who is a major EV player. BYD, Samsung, Panasonic and LG, all in Asia, have large battery manufacturing capacity, and nine of the largest battery factories are coming up in China. There is no such activity in India yet.
Manufacturing capacity in India is also extremely poor. Mahindra is the only all-electric car manufacturer, while Tata makes some niche electric commercial vehicles. Sales volumes even of electric two-wheelers from Hero, Yo and Lohia Motors are still very low. For a variety of reasons, the Indian automotive industry is very slow and apparently reluctant to enter this segment or scale up their hitherto meager volumes. In keeping with its reliance on foreign manufacturers to “make in India,” the government has been trying its best to lure Tesla into setting up a manufacturing base, but this is taking long to fructify. Tesla recently once again postponed its entry citing difficulties in meeting a 30 per cent indigenous sourcing condition due to absence of a supporting eco-system in India, although the government has refuted this claim.
If India is serious about its goal, it is imperative that a slew of measures be taken to incentivise manufacturers and component makers. Earlier this year, government announced that it would meet 60 per cent of R&D costs to develop indigenous EV technologies. India also has its FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles) Scheme under which subsidies of Rs 1,800 to Rs 22,000 are offered on electric two-wheelers, Rs11,000 to Rs 1.38 lakh for cars, and Rs 13,000 for hybrids. The government had earmarked aside Rs 795 crore for these subsidies but, according to reports, was able to spend only Rs190 crore of this in 2016.
Minister Goyal recently hinted that government was thinking of extending subsidies to the automotive industry “for two to three years” till it develops the requisite capability, citing the example of how government supported Maruti in the state-sector to pave the way for the private sector to mature and scale. But this needs to be done soon, and at sufficient scale, if a manufacturing system and related ecosystem is to be set up to enable anywhere the kind of scales required for the all-electric vehicle goal by 2030.
Regulatory and fiscal support is also yet to achieve serious dimensions and come of age commensurate with the goal. For instance, industry is upset with the finance ministry for refusing, despite appeals, to reduce GST on hybrid cars, which has been pitched at 28 per cent, with an additional cess of 15 per cent, the same as for large luxury cars and sports utility vehicles.
So at the moment, the main incentive India is offering is the size of its domestic market. This is a great incentive for large foreign manufacturers, such as neighbour China which is rapidly building and expanding its own manufacturing capacity now accounting for 50 per cent of global EV sales, but not necessarily for its fledgling indigenous EV industry. As of now, India is well behind the financial capability of China, or the technological capability of Japan and Korea, to achieve its stated goal, especially through its indigenous industry.
There are also huge infrastructural hurdles to overcome.
Most EVs in India presently rely on domestic sockets for charging batteries, and there are hardly any publicly available charging stations. This will be a major challenge, in more ways than one. In Japan, there are already more electric charging stations than petrol pumps! India has around 56,000 petrol stations, and conceivably all these could also double up as charging stations, but many more outlets would have to be added. Since this must be an all-India roll-out, all petrol stations, even those in remote rural areas, must have assured electricity supply or powerful generators, ironically running on diesel.
The RMI study has estimated that India’s carbon emissions from passenger transport would decrease by around 37 per cent. But if 350 million EVs are to be charged, that is a huge additional demand on electricity which is not likely to be met by solar or wind power by 2030. This means more consumption of coal power, with related emissions!
Finally, India also needs to think hard whether to put all its eggs in the electric basket. There are also other solutions out there for automotive technologies based on renewables, such as hydrogen fuel cells and second-generation biofuels such as methanol from agro-residues. These options do indeed have their own disadvantages too, but no country should shut its options off, and embark on a high-risk one-dimensional strategy.