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India has a better option than electric cars

A move to electric vehicles in India will be far from “green”, and ignores existing technologies which could be less disruptive and more useful.

Since coming to power the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has announced one green energy initiative after the other. One by one, however, these have turned out to be red herrings that have succeeded only in drawing attention away from technologies that can deliver the required non-fossil fuel energy.

His first commitment, to set up 100,000 MW of solar power generating capacity by 2022 has got off to a slow start. 2,133 MW of generating capacity was added in 2015, and a little under 4,000 MW in 2016. Around 10,000 MW is now under construction and will come on stream by the end of next year.

That will still leave another 84,000 MW to be constructed in the next four years. The task is not impossible, so the government has raised its solar power target to 250,000 MW by 2030 but the impact these will have on carbon emissions is debatable.

The first two large plants have an ‘availability’ of only 19 to 20 per cent, in other words they can only be run for about 1,700 hours a year, or less than five hours a day. Thus even 250,000 MW of power installed in photovoltaic plants will generate no more electricity than 60,000 MW generated by conventional power plants today.

They will thus meet only 10 per cent of the additional power the country will need by 2030. Solar photovoltaic power could therefore turn out to be a red herring when it comes to reducing GHG emissions and mitigating climate change. But it is being chased not only by India but by most countries of the world, because it is cheap, takes very little time to set up, and is therefore virtually risk free.

Leapfrogging to an electric vehicles future

But the Indian government is about to chase another, even larger, red herring.

In a 90-page report prepared with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) titled “Transformative Mobility Solutions for India”. The outcome of a multi stakeholder workshop in February, led by India’s Planning Commission (renamed Niti Aayog in 2014) and RMI, which included key industry leaders, the report urges the government to make a radical transformation towards a transportation system geared completely around electric vehicles.

The report proposes a 15 year plan for making the shift which will begin by limiting the registration of conventional vehicles through public lotteries, and complement that with a preferential registration for electric vehicles, similar to policies followed in China.

To kick-start the shift, the report suggests an initial bulk procurement of electric vehicles, building standardised, swappable batteries for two- and three-wheelers to bring down their cost and having favourable tariff structures for charging cars.

Where will the electricity come from?

The idea is futuristic and may get accepted because it will fit in with Modi’s flamboyant style of decision-making. RMI and Niti Aayog have sweetened the pill by claiming it will reduce annual GHG emissions by one billion tonnes. A few moments reflection, however, reveals its gaping flaws.

The number of privately owned motorised vehicles rose from 29 million in 2002 to 160 million in 2013. This figure will almost certainly rise again, to over 500 million, by 2030. This immediately raises the question, “Where will the electricity they consume come from?”

A few hundred thousand electric cars spread all over the country can have their batteries charged from sockets in their garages, or at charging stations installed at petrol pumps, without unduly increasing the load on the existing power stations. So this will genuinely help to lower emissions.

But when 350 million vehicles have to be charged every day, at any time of the day or night, anywhere in the country, not only will an entire nation-wide, and therefore expensive, recharging infrastructure have to be built, but the power these vehicles will consume will have to be generated first.

Given the limited capacity of solar PV power to meet this demand and the miniscule contribution of nuclear power in India’s energy mix, nearly all of this will have to come from coal.

That is when the second law of thermodynamics will come into play. Even with supercritical temperatures and pressures of steam to drive the generators, the conversion efficiency of heat into electricity is no higher than 42 per cent. 

There will be further losses in converting AC into DC current and in overcoming the inertia of moving parts as electrical energy is turned into mechanical energy to drive the vehicle. All in all, therefore, at least three times as much fossil fuel energy will have to be consumed as the energy saved by switching from oil and gas to electric cars.

Most of it will come from coal, which generates far more greenhouse gases per unit of usable energy than petrol, diesel or CNG.

A giant shift in infrastructure

Then there is the giant shift that will have to be made in the country’s energy infrastructure. In 13 short years, a nationwide network of charging stations will have to be built, that is capable of recharging car and lorry batteries within a few minutes.

Simultaneously an intricate transport fuel distribution and storage system will become redundant, causing substantial losses to the distributors.

Add to this the losses that India’s highly developed auto components companies will have to endure, and the outcome is obvious. Since India is no longer a closed economy and no other country is contemplating such radical auto surgery many, if not most, of them will shift their factories to Thailand.

The number of charging stations that will have to be created is mind boggling. In 2014 there were 51,780 petrol pumps. Another 35,600 were projected to be added by the end of this year. At the current rate of growth this figure is likely to treble to 250,000 by 2030, and the majority will have to be in small towns and along highways, where there is no reliable power supply today.

If these stations are also to meet the demand of charging electric vehicles, during power cuts and low voltage periods the owners will have to set up generators. These will run on diesel, contributing still more greenhouse gases.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole. Read the full story.

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