Decarbonization does not have the same value as electric vehicles

If you ask 10 people in the country how the transportation sector can be decarbonized, nine of them will most likely suggest electric vehicles (EVs) as the solution. They cannot be blamed. For some reason, the communication reaching them is that electric vehicles are the panacea for all vehicular emissions ills. This, despite the government’s comprehensive approach to this critical challenge involving multiple fuel options.

Emissions can also be significantly reduced through shared mobility and the scrapping of older vehicles. All of these pathways are essential if India is to meet its international commitment to reduce its carbon intensity by 45% by 2030 (compared to 2005 baseline levels).

While EVs undoubtedly seem like a promising solution – their tailpipe emissions are zero, there are other issues around them if one does a ‘well-to-wheel’ analysis. If the energy source that charges the batteries of electric vehicles is not clean (more than 60% of India’s electricity is generated from coal, a polluting fuel), then they do not contribute to the overall reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Additionally, mining the metals used in electric vehicle batteries involves energy-intensive processes and measures that are often not compliant with ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards.

Moreover, the range of vehicles in India is such that electric vehicles cannot be the only solution. Consider this: Most diesel consumption (nearly 40 percent), for example, comes from interstate trucks and buses. Today, there is no electric mobility solution for them.

Ambitious target

The government has set a very ambitious target of 30% of all passenger vehicles sold by 2030 as electric vehicles. Experts realistically expect this to be around 8-10% given scalability challenges with charging stations and continued subsidies. Thus, by 2030, it can be assumed that almost 90% of all cars sold will still be equipped with internal combustion engines (ICE). This, coupled with existing (non-electric) cars on the road, will continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that will make it difficult for India to meet its obligations.

In addition, the country must also keep energy affordability and security in mind. India’s per capita income (in PPP terms) is one-tenth that of Norway or the United States. The solution these countries are developing may be too costly for us. Moreover, the country is weak in terms of energy security because it depends almost entirely on the outside for its crude oil needs. Can India use the transformation occurring in the mobility space to enhance this security? Electric vehicles may not offer them because the country does not have access to lithium reserves (a key component of an electric vehicle battery). China holds the largest share of reserves.

In other words, our energy dependence, if we adopt electric mobility as our primary option, could shift from West Asia to China. A darker outlook indeed.

That aside, technologies involving green mobility are still evolving and it is possible that a better fuel source will emerge for India in the future. Therefore, the government is rightly pursuing several options – biofuel (ethanol and compressed biogas), including flex fuel vehicles, compressed natural gas (CNG), hydrogen, hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) apart from electric vehicles . Each of them will have a role to play and would be acceptable for different categories of vehicles.

Ethanol: Ethanol blending finally took off after many false starts. Today, the country has achieved 10% blending and a target has been set for 20% by 2025. Ethanol blending means reduced emissions at almost zero cost to consumers (fuel and vehicles).

The availability of ethanol is key and the government has taken steps in this direction by even allowing the direct conversion of cane juice into ethanol. It has also helped India manage its sugar surplus effectively. Ethanol blending has improved cash flow for the sugar industry, which has also benefited farmers. Ethanol capacity is increasing, and the government is already pushing for flex-fuel engines (they will cost more than ICE vehicles but less than electric vehicles) that can use a much higher proportion of ethanol.

Gas: CNG vehicles are again a low-cost option to promote decarbonization. They don’t cost much more than ICE vehicles and emit far fewer GHGs. The government is increasing the availability of CNG and by 2030 over 17,000 service stations are planned out of the current 4,500. Compressed biogas (CBG) is another focus area. It is generated from agricultural waste. Plans are underway to set up decentralized CBG factories that can source agricultural waste, convert it into CBG, and supply nearby gas stations. This too will help the rural economy and reduce emissions generated by burning waste (and therefore carbon negative).

Hybrids: Hybrid electric vehicles are another avenue. They cost more than an ICE vehicle but less than an electric vehicle and reduce emissions by 40%. As they continuously charge and recharge, they avoid the need for charging stations and can be scaled up faster.

Hydrogen: Hydrogen-powered vehicles, experts say, are at least a decade away. They seem to be the most promising for India in terms of emission obligation (zero emissions) and energy security (zero imports). The government must put all its energy and go into mission mode to develop the technology and the capacity to produce green hydrogen at an affordable cost.

Multiple fuels

Until an ideal technology is developed, multiple fuels will have to drive India’s decarbonization path – EV (2w/3w/ intra-city public transport); biofuel (small cars, trucks and intercity buses); Hybrid electric vehicle (large passenger vehicles); CNG/CBG (intra-city/small PV buses).

That aside, scrapping old vehicles (emissions from a 15-year-old truck equals 14 new ones) and ensuring seamless public transport will go a long way to reducing emissions. As V Sumantran, Charles Fine and David Gonsalvez point out in their book Faster, Smarter, Greener – The future of car and urban mobility, the economic cost of air pollution, traffic jams and network blockages is between 6 and 8% of the region’s GDP.

They further argue that emissions control is an issue that goes far beyond the remit of the automotive sector and involves society, city and community.

Therefore, a conscious effort must be made to educate every Indian that decarbonization is a challenge that can only be solved with multiple technologies and cannot be done without their wholehearted involvement.

Published on

August 04, 2022

#Decarbonization #electric #vehicles

Add Comment