A variety of electric cars has entered the market in India – priced from Rs 80 lakh to less than a tenth of that price. Charging stations, where the cars can top up batteries, are sprouting and the plan is to have one every four kms in the larger cities. The cars can also use domestic connections and the cost is said to be below Rs two per km.

The trend in India follows that in most parts of the world, where the electric car is fast gaining ground. Sales in January 2020 are reported to be over 150,000 and all major manufacturers are now in the field.

The journal, Nature Sustainability, carries a review to see if this is really good for the environment. Florian Knobloch, Steef V. Hanssen, Aileen Lam, Hector Pollitt, Pablo Salas, Unnada Chewpreecha, Mark AJ Huijbregts? and JeanFrancois Mercure, from Radboud University, the Netherlands, University of Cambridge, University of Exter and University of Macao, compare the “life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions” of using electricity, or fossil fuels, to drive personal transport and household heating, worldwide.

The study covers 59 regions of the world, and they find that in 53 of them, which account for 95 per cent of global transport and heating demand, the use of electricity can better the use of fossil fuels in the net emissions of greenhouse gasses, even with the existing methods of generating electricity. The troubling part of the finding is that among the six regions where this is not true, India figures as the leader.

The electric car has been actively encouraged and incentivised in India.
The Union department of heavy industry under the National Mission for Electric Mobility, has formulated a scheme known as Fame – Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles in India – and the Union power ministry has issued guidelines for setting up charging facilities that are efficient and economical.

Under the aegis of Fame, in 2015, car rallies were flagged off in three cities in India, to promote “electrification of automobile transportation”.

As the event was planned to take place just a week before the international summit in Paris to combat climate change, this newspaper (2 December 2015) had carried a piece that questioned whether electric cars were in fact economical for India. While the electric car emits no direct greenhouse gases, it can be only as green as the electricity it consumes.

In most countries now, a good proportion of electricity is generated from hydroelectric, wind driven and nuclear sources of energy. In India, however, and Australia and Indonesia are similar, most of the electricity is generated in power plants fired with coal, petroleum or natural gas, the bulk being coal. And the coal in India is notoriously poor, emitting more pollutants, like sodium dioxide, in addition to carbon dioxide, for every calorie of heat, than better quality coal.

The review in 2015 had noted that while the use of the electric car was environment friendly when electricity came from non-polluting sources, the efficiency dropped when the sources were more dependent on fossil fuels.
Comparisons made are shown in the Tables 1 and 2. Table 1 shows that with heavy coal dependence, poor quality of coal, transmission losses, et al, the net emissions when electric cars are used in India were more than twice the emissions in European countries, Canada and Japan, over one and half times that in the US and even China.

Table 2 displays this information in terms of the fuel efficiency of a petrol driven car, if it were to match the electric car. We can see that in the best cases, the electric car works like a petrol car that runs for over 17 km on a litre of petrol. The same electric cars in India, however, behave like petrol cars that use up a litre of petrol every 8.5 km. As many petrol cars do a lot better than that in India, it seemed that switching to electric cars would result in greater GHG emission than reduction!

The current review in Nature Sustainability has addressed the same concern, to verify if the electric car is more environment friendly, considering the continuing presence of fossil fuels in generating electricity. With improved battery packs and drop in prices, the electric car has become affordable. While the low running costs are because of the electricity tariff being what it is, it was important to know that the low tariff was not leading to greater emissions when petrol users shift to electricity. While there is a relentless drive to “decarbonise” electricity generation, was the shift to electricity for transport (and domestic heating) premature?

The team hence carried out a comprehensive audit of the cost of running an electric car (and heating systems), taking into account the entire life cycle – the “use phase” – arising from the efficiency of the running car and the emissions from generating electricity, and the “production and end-of-life phase” – the emissions for manufacture (and disposal) of the cars and batteries. The study covers the entire global use space and simulates consumer choices and possible mismatches in the planned expansion of green energy programmes, over time.

“Overall, we find that current and future life-cycle emissions from EVs and HPs are on average lower than those of new petrol cars and fossil boilers — not just on the global aggregate but also in most individual countries. Over time, in increasingly more regions even the use of inefficient EVs or HPs is less emission intensive than the most efficient new petrol cars or fossil boilers,” the paper says.

While the study hence gives a somewhat hesitant all clear to most regions in the world, it holds back the same certificate from six of 59, or 10 per cent of the regions covered. In the data supplements, where the paper provides the figures that it has relied upon, it compares the quality of the electricity generated in different countries, by tabulation the “Grams of CO2 that are emitted for each unit (kilo Watt-hour) of electricity generated.

The figures are shown in Table 3 – and the position of India, as the leader, speaks for itself (Estonia, which has a higher figure, has a total population of 1.3 million, less than most cities in India).

The conclusion is not difficult to reach – India’s power generation technology has a long way to go before electric cars can be a green solution.
The thriving industry, which the government supports and subsidies, is an anachronism that may be a result of lobbying or just gap in understanding.