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Electric vehicles can be good, bad and ugly

But in India, at the moment, we are stuck with coal power generation. EVs are bound to take off in India in a few years.

SUNIL SHARAN | New Delhi |


The finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, has announced in the latest budget a tax incentive of $2,200 for the purchase of an electric car. India has become fascinated by electric cars just like so many other countries, especially the US, have become. Of course, if the US does something, India must follow suit. The US offers a tax credit of up to $7,500 for the purchase of an EV. EVs have subsequently boomed in parts of the US, especially on the west and the east coasts.

At a time when the Trump administration disdains man-made climate change, global warming and clean energy, EVs remain one bright spot in clean technology that can alleviate climate change. The success of the EV industry in the US in the US lies in no small measure to the charismatic personality of Elon Musk, the maverick founder and CEO of Tesla Motors.

Tesla has scored points for its slick design and clean lines. Almost every major car manufacturer is now coming out with an EV. Musk wants to be in India this year or the next. The Modi government wants him to set up a factory in India but that initiative seems to have run into some regulatory hurdles. India is a virgin market for EVs, with just six thousand on the road compared to China’s 1.35 million.

But India’s rich class is expected to line up outside the door for a Tesla. An EV is able to expiate the guilt of a rich person that she’s doing something for climate action. But how true is this belief?

EVs have to be powered by electricity that is generated by power plants. Power plants in India run mainly on coal, one of the most polluting of fossil fuels. EVs just move carbon emissions from the tailpipe (the exhaust of a car) to the smokestack (the coal-powered power plant). Different studies indicate different levels of movement of emissions. The problem is that the climate science industry has become so politicised, that studies, even from notable academics, tend to first begin with the answer that the researcher wants to provide or is incentivised to provide, and then work backward to fill in the gaps.

The layman often misses the causal link between the power plant and the EV. But then, who really cares? A Tesla is slick, a Tesla is cool, owning a Tesla makes you a shining star and a talking point amongst your friends.

The other issue with EVs is battery technology. EVs are recharged using the same battery material, lithium ion, that powers cell phones and lap tops. Who hasn’t felt the cell phone heating up on the inside of your thigh if you place the phone in your front pocket. Warm, almost hot, isn’t it? Makes you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it? There you go and quickly fish the cell phone out of your pocket.

Who hasn’t heard of the recall of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of lap tops and cell phones just because the battery caught fire in many of them. The point is that lithium ion is a flame hazard. The other point is that there is no other viable battery material in sight. So expect to live with lithium ion in EVs for a long time. Would you like to be cruising on the highway at 100 kmph with your family of four only to look in your rear view mirror and discover that your vehicle is half engulfed in flames?

There are more sustainable options for transportation. Brazil has converted almost its entire vehicular fleet to run on ethanol. The US tried to go the ethanol route, but the ethanol in the US is derived from corn. Corn prices shot up so much because of demand from the transportation industry that there was little corn left to feed livestock. The US backtracked on its ethanol plans.

In Brazil, ethanol comes from sugarcane. Sugarcane is plentiful in India as well. India too has taken halfhearted stabs at ethanol, but it has refused to go whole hog as Brazil has done. Brazil, unlike the US, is a Third World country and perhaps not worthy for us to emulate.

The other reasonably sustainable transportation fuel is compressed natural gas (CNG). India, like many developing countries, with Pakistan in the forefront, has made advances in this area. But in CNG there is the ungainly cylinder to deal with. A separate fueling infrastructure has to be set up. Major global car players are not willing to deal with these issues. Most of the cars sold in India are made by global majors, so CNG is not going far anytime soon in the country, at least as a transportation fuel. But natural gas has another critical use. It can be used to power electricity plants and it is only half as polluting as coal. Natural gas has become the US power industry’s fuel of choice, rapidly displacing coal. But the US is awash in natural gas derived from shale rock, also known as shale gas. India’s known resources of natural gas, including shale gas, are comparatively very limited. India thus has to import natural gas. Two of the top producers of natural gas are Iran and Russia. The US is sanctioning Iran, forcing us to cut the latter off as a supplier of energy resources. But should we buckle to the American pressure? Similarly, our relations with the Russians have frayed because of our fascination with the Americans. Should we not be cutting exciting energy deals with the Russians?

If natural gas starts to power Indian power plants the way it is powering American power plants, then a case can be made for EVs, at least from a climate action point of view. Generate power with half as much pollution as you were doing with coal, and then use that relatively clean power to fuel EVs, which don’t generate emissions at all.

But in India, at the moment, we are stuck with coal power generation. EVs are bound to take off in India in a few years. We must ensure that coal doesn’t remain the predominant fuel to power EVs. The whole point of zero emitting EVs is lost then. But the movement away from coal can only happen if we have the guts to rejig our foreign policy. Do we?

The writer is an expert on energy and contributes regularly to publications in India and overseas.