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Can Electric Buses, EVs Recharge India’s Public Transportation?

Can Electric Buses, EVs Recharge India’s Public Transportation?

Public transport in many cities in India saw successful transition to CNG a decade ago. Can EVs, pitched as a more eco-friendly solution to India's pollution woes, also see a similar success story?

In 1993, three filling stations in Delhi offered CNG for industrial and domestic users, but that was about the change very soon. In 1995, a lawyer filed PIL with the Supreme Court of India about the health risks caused by air pollution emitted from road vehicles. This catapulted India into the low-emission era.

Three years later, the Supreme Court gave an April 2001 as the deadline to replace or convert all public buses, three-wheelers and taxis to CNG. And by 2005, around 10K CNG buses, 55K CNG three wheelers, 5K CNG minibuses along with taxis and cars ran on Delhi’s roads, with similar numbers in many of the other metros in the country.

The transition happened within ten years of the SC case and there was a drop in vehicular pollution in Delhi. However, because of an increase in the number of private cars, the need of the hour today is an even greener option.

While there are serious questions about the viability of electric vehicles (EVs) as saviours of the environment, the fact is that they are the best option for green mobility as seen by the government, startups and green warriors — at least as far as the transport sector is concerned. Will EVs have similar transition?

How State Transport Units Can Drive EV Transition

In India, state transport units (STUs) have been pitched as the solution for EV transition across the many regions and geographies, especially beyond the two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Many states have already come up with EV policies and roadmaps, and STU’s have started running electric fleets, both intra city and inter-city (within a distance of 300km).

“EV penetration is going to take place like it happened in the case of CNG. With push from government and financial sops — fiscal and non-fiscal. It will start with public transport, specifically STUs, three wheelers and two wheelers. Three wheelers and two wheelers because, it is TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) positive compared to ICE vehicles even now,” Abhilash Savidhan, automotive professional with Tata Technologies told Inc42.

(Disclaimer: Savidhan’s opinion expressed in this article are his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.)

Currently, there are approximately 1.95 lakh buses under several STUs in India. The Indian government began implementing phase 2 of FAME in April this year. In its policy, the government has proposed to invest INR 10,000 Cr ($1.4 Bn) over three years to support 10 Lakh two-wheelers, 5 Lakh three-wheelers, 55K four-wheelers, and 7K buses that operate on lithium-ion batteries or other electric power-trains.

Can Electric Buses Fill The EV Gap?

Electric buses are envisioned as an integral part of the EV revolution and the Smart Cities Mission, so the government is investing heavily in their development and wider adoption. The government sanctioned 5,595 electric buses in 64 cities for intracity and intercity operations under the scheme in August 2019. So, with this in mind, the complete transition of public transport to EVs looks like an eventual reality. The intra-city part of the fleet could potentially get electrified at a faster pace.

“Public transport moves a lot more people than cars do, so the focus of the government looks more channelized under FAME 2 where in buses have been given 35% share of the total demand incentive. Cities in India are growing rapidly and new ones are emerging as well, so public transport is expected to become a key element of the mobility spectrum, hence electrifying it will greatly help in reducing CO2 emissions,” Suraj Ghosh, principal Analyst, Powertrain & Compliance Forecasts, IHS Markit’ told Inc42.

However, unlike CNG, EV transition will require incentives from government to continue till the ownership cost gap with ICE (internal combustion engine) reaches acceptable limits, because EV costs are not going to decrease at the rate which CNG kit costs decreased and how the technology was localised.

“For four-wheeler taxis, it will take some more time. The ownership costs need to come down further (even when considering commercial usage). Once cost parity with ICE is achieved, taxi operators and later on private car buyers will start buying EVs,” Tata’s Savidhan added.

There is no fixed timeline mandated by any government (state or central) to complete the transition of state and municipal transport buses to EVs. STU’s is predicted to have an EV fleet presence of 20% in the next five years. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Telangana, New Delhi and Gujarat are expected to lead in this as they have shown pro-activeness and have either released their EV policies or are in the process of releasing.

“EV penetration in STU’s may go upto 30% by 2025. 100% transition will take more time due to the constraints in grid load requirements and charging load requirements. I guess we can hope penetration of more than 50% after 2030. Long distance buses and interstate buses will take the longest,” he added.

The Union Minister of Road Transport and highways Nitin Gadkari announced earlier this year that all buses in the country will switch to electric over the next two years without the government having to force the industry to transition to cleaner sources of mobility.

In October this year, Tata Motors was awarded a contract for 300 e-buses by the Ahmedabad Janmarg Limited (AJL). Prior to that the company had delivered more than 200 e-buses with over 60% market share under the central government’s FAME I scheme. This is considered as the largest mandate to date to support the government’s e-mobility drive. The company said that it would supply Urban 9/9 Electric buses which will run in Ahmedabad’s bus rapid transit system (BRTS) corridor.

Bumpy Road On The Way To Complete Transition

In August this year, vehicle manufacturer Maruti Suzuki India said it would focus on developing vehicles with CNG and hybrid powertrains until electric vehicles become affordable.

Last month, the company’s chairman RC Bhargava said that emobility in India still needs two to four years to gain prominence and become popular among customers. He said that India’s infrastructure will have to improve significantly, roads have to be built and there should be charging infrastructure and transmission of power to handle emobility in India.

Government ministries, OEMs, regulators, city planners, manufacturers, and housing societies need to come together on specifications, standards, installation of charging station and allied infrastructure (like transformers etc). Though NITI Aayog has been trying to bring all stakeholders under one umbrella, there is resistance from various quarters.

Here are the challenges EV startups in India feel can delay EV if not addressed.

  • Local manufacturing of EV components
  • Unlike CNG, EV space involves higher number of stakeholders, which makes it difficult to form consensus on ideas.
  • A lot needs to be done as far as talent availability is concerned for hardware, software or local manufacturing of EV components that can deliver OEM quality, smaller components like fuses or switches higher level components like battery management systems, vehicle control units and so on.
  • High acquisition costs – Typically electric buses cost about 3-4 times the cost of CNG or diesel buses.
  • Poor financial health of STUs to upgrade infrastructure
  • Operational challenges such as downtime during charging or battery swapping can disturb the trip cycle of a bus.
  • Lack of clarity on the standards for charging infra or battery swapping technology. Currently bus makers are partnering with technology providers for specific solutions (Example: Ashok Leyland partnering with Sun Mobility).
  • Range anxiety – It may not be an issue for intra-city buses but for inter-city transport, it may become a big challenge.
  • Imported technology – Most of the key components are being sourced from outside India — most prominently battery cells which constitute the highest share of the cost.

For Rupesh Kumar, CEO of charging infrastructure provider EVI Technologies, standardisation in battery charging and technologies will play a vital role in driving up adoption.

“We expect new the vehicle will be launched in all segments and there will be standardisation in battery and charging types, this will help to create an atmosphere for investors to invest in battery and charging infrastructure. We expect there will be a minimum of 20-25% growth in the EV market, which can grow up to 50% after proper standardisation.”

Author

Shanthi S

Inc42 Staff
Journalist

Shanthi has 13 years of experience in journalism, both print and digital media. She specialises in writing long format feature stories. Trends, interviews and human-interest stories are her forte. You can write to her at [email protected]

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