The e-rickshaw industry has now established itself as the undisputed outlier of India’s auto sector. Amid the worst slowdown in vehicle sales, e-rickshaw sales have grown unabated.
E-rickshaws are low maintenance, have a lower cost to operate than their petrol and CNG counterparts. But more importantly, across North India, where deteriorating air quality levels have made urban areas inhospitable, the emission-less e-rickshaw is being hailed as the humble, homegrown agent of change to a cleaner, less fossil fuel dependent India.
While sales of other vehicles have all but stalled, India’s fleet of battery-operated three-wheelers has grown from 4000 in 2010 to more than 1.5 Mn in less than a decade. Every month 11K new electric rickshaws are produced, according to the consulting firm AT Kearney. Gushing endorsements from central and state policymakers have ensued government support. Just this month Prince Charles, the heir to the UK throne, went for a spin on one while on a state visit, while German chancellor Angela Merkel met with e-rickshaw drivers at a metro station in Delhi.
So is the e-rickshaw India’s best bet as a climate-friendly urban mobility solution?
A closer look at the data suggests that its impact on halting global warming may be limited due to factors outside of the industry’s control.
Where There Is Smoke…
According to a 2015 study on the pros and cons of e-rickshaws by Deepanjan Majumdar and Tushar Jash, the average specific energy consumption of the e-rickshaws has been found to be 53.76 kJ/passenger-km, which is the most efficient among other forms of motorised transport. While regular auto-rickshaws use as much as seven times as much.
(The average specific energy consumption is the amount of energy consumed by the vehicle to transport a passenger one kilometre.)
However, the catch remains that most e-rickshaws are charged from household sockets. Thus e-rickshaws can not be considered as a zero-emission vehicle as the charging relates to the CO2 emissions at the power stations. And this is where the pro-electric narrative glosses over a few uncomfortable facts. First and foremost being that India — the world’s third-largest producer of electricity — makes most this comes from coal and natural gas-powered plants.
According to the Ministry of Power, the central regulator of domestic electricity production, India produces about 70% of its power from coal and about 10% more from other fossil fuel derivatives like natural gas and oil. In terms of CO2 emissions, the power sector produced 888 Mn tonnes of CO2 in 2016-17.
India’s need for it is set to double in the next few years and the cheapest and fastest way to get this is through coal-based thermal power plants.
“Meeting the country’s demand for 24×7 reliable electricity supply will require doubling the installed power generation capacity with at least 50,000 megawatts (MW) to 60,000 MW of thermal power capacity,” a top power sector official had reportedly said earlier in May.
The nose-bleed pace of electricity generation meant that coal mining — a prime polluter in its own right — has also been stepped up.
Raw coal production in the country has increased from 567.77 Mn tonnes (MT) in 2013-14 to 730.35 MT in 2018-19, Union Coal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said in Lok Sabha this month. He also said that India had to import an additional 234 MT coal last year.
Moreover, a majority of India’s thermal power plants don’t comply with emission norms set by the government, according to a Reuters report.
While there has been a sustained push to promote renewable and non-polluting forms of producing electricity, India’s installed green energy capacity stands at about 65 GW today. It was expected to cross 100 GW by December 2022, definitely short of the government’s 175GW target and far behind the 450 GW target that Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed to while speaking at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York in September.
So the power needed to run India’s growing fleet of e-rickshaws also emits substantial amounts of CO2, the only difference being that the exhaust is conveniently tucked away into remote industrial zones where a city dweller would rarely venture.
Also, e-rickshaws in India are limited to a top speed of 25 km/hr. This causes more pollution as they slow down other vehicles in traffic. This increases emissions as petroleum-based vehicles pollute more when running at lower speeds, a study showed.
“The unorganised sector has been peddling e-rickshaws of poor quality, with lead-acid batteries that need to be changed every 6-8 months with no proper warranty,” said Sulajja Firodia Motwani, CEO of Kinetic Green Energy & Power Solutions.
Are E-rickshaws A Step In The Right Direction?
While currently e-rickshaws cannot be branded as 100% emission-free, the fact remains that world over auto experts have pointed out that electric vehicles (EVs) are the future as petrol and diesel engines are hugely inefficient. About 70% of the energy produced in an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is wasted.
Considering total number of e-rickshaws in India to be 1.5 Mn, the annual emission reduction is of 3.801 x 10^6 tonnes of CO2, according to Shakti Foundation (a clean energy think tank)
Another thing to consider when comparing tail-pipe emissions to emissions by coal-based power plants is that making petroleum and diesel also requires coal to create it.
Rosemary Pierce-Messick, cofounder of Three Wheels United, a social enterprise that offers financing solutions to auto drivers to buy electric autos said: ” “When looking at emissions being shifted from tailpipe to power-plant in the case of EVs, you should also remember that not only do ICE vehicles have tailpipe emissions but they also contribute emissions during the process of extraction and refinement before the fuel even gets into the vehicle to be burned.”
In some parts of the country, work is now going on to ensure that e-rickshaws are running on cleaner power. In September, Kinetic’s green mobility arm joined hands with Maharashtra’s metro building organisation, MahaMetro, to start e-rickshaw services along with charging points which draw 65% of their energy from solar power.
Companies like Mahindra are now making e-autos powered by lithium-ion batteries. These autos are capable of the same speeds as normal CNG and diesel autos and will not cause the kind of congestion problems as e-rickshaws.
As the Nobel prize committee eloquently put it while awarding John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino the 2019 Nobel prize in chemistry: “Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”
So the bottom line remains that electric cars, trains and rickshaws are vital to cleaner air in urban centres. They’re ultra-efficient and have no tailpipe emissions. However, we’ll need clean electricity to run the e-rickshaws.
(Graphics by Naga Jayadeep Akula)