A large scale shift to electric vehicles may not be as environment friendly as it seems

  • The government of India has been advocating a shift to electric vehicles, claiming to have a lower environmental impact.
  • But there are concerns that without a solid plan for this shift and in absence of a plan for integrating renewables to power, the large scale shift to EVs could mean an adverse impact for the environment and communities living in and around India’s power generation centres, primarily using fossil fuels.
  • Energy experts note that a plan is also needed to address the supply chain issues of batteries that are required for powering electric vehicles.

While there’s been a push for shifting to electric vehicles (EVs) in India, so far there are no mandatory targets and the impact of a large-scale shift to electric vehicles could fall on the environment and communities living in and around India’s power generation centres.

The shift to EVs would mean the new vehicles registered in India would be powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels which in turn would need that many batteries.

But if the source of the power of the electric vehicles itself continues to be fossil fuels (electricity generated from fossil fuel-powered plants) rather than renewable power, it defeats the whole purpose of the shift, say environmentalists. However, they admit it would certainly make some difference in controlling the high level of vehicular pollution across the country.

A study released by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) on November 9 said that India could save on crude oil imports worth over Rs one trillion (Rs. 1 lakh crore) annually if EVs were to garner 30 percent share of India’s new vehicle sales by 2030. It said this increase in the penetration of EVs could also increase the combined market size of powertrain, battery and public chargers to over Rs. two trillion (Rs. 2 lakh crore) in addition to creating 120,000 new jobs in the sector.

The CEEW study said that a substantial number of new jobs are also likely to be created in emerging areas such as battery recycling, telematics, and allied construction and services due to this. It, however, cautioned that 30 percent EV penetration could also mean an estimated 19 percent fewer jobs in the oil sector and in the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle manufacturing sector combined.

As per the study, the combined annual value add loss in the oil and the automobile sector could amount to about Rs two trillion (Rs. two lakh crore) and the central and state governments would lose over Rs one trillion (Rs. one lakh crore) in tax revenue annually from reduced sales of petrol and diesel.

Sunil Dahiya, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an independent research organisation working on clean air and clean energy said that while promoting EVs the authorities should prioritise EVs in the public transport system otherwise it could become a problem.

“If integration of renewable energy is not pushed for powering electric vehicles, it could become another problem for the environment and communities living in and around areas that generate coal-based power for India. We need to focus on renewable energy powering EVs, non-motorised vehicles and prioritise shifting of public transport to electric from fossil-fuel-based systems rather than promoting EVs for every individual otherwise, road space will also be a problem. The batteries that are required for EVs and minerals required for them is another debate altogether that needs to be widely debated,” Dahiya told Mongabay-India.

This is something that the CEEW study also highlighted as it said that to realise the full benefits of an EV transition, the rise in private vehicle ownership must be contained via policy interventions and behavioural nudges.

“An increasing share of passenger travel demand should be met via public transport and non-motorised transport options such as walking and cycling. Such a focus would also have positive implications for air quality, road safety, congestion, and energy consumption,” the study said.

Electric buses are going to be a crucial part of India’s focus on electric mobility. Photo by LoveofZ/Wikimedia Commons.
Electric buses are going to be a crucial part of India’s focus on electric mobility. Photo by LoveofZ/Wikimedia Commons.

Electric vehicles are being considered an important part of the transition towards cleaner mobility which right now is dependent on fossil fuels. However, there is a concern that if the EVs are powered by electricity that is generated from power sources running on fossil fuels then the whole effort of reducing the environmental pollution load will be limited. It would merely mean that areas which are generating the power for charging those EVs will continue to suffer due to pollution from such plants while areas, where the EVs are going to be adopted, would turn cleaner.

Also, the batteries that are powering most of the EVs right now require Lithium – a mineral that is not widely available. So, with a surge in electric vehicles, the demand for minerals powering its batteries will increase as well which would mean an impact on the environment and communities in and around those mining reserves.

Read more: [Video] Is mining in India ‘just’ for the environment and communities?

Growth of EVs would require attention to their batteries too

With a large scale shift to electric vehicles, that many more batteries would be required to power them. It is estimated that the total number of registered vehicles in India is about 280 million (in 2017 as per data released in 2019) and every month, thousands of new vehicles are added to Indian roads. India right now has over 500,000 electric vehicles including private cars, public transport buses, electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers.

Vibhhas Verma, who is the founder of Aqueouss, one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of batteries for electric vehicles, said electric vehicles are one of the most important and discussed topics around the world at present.

“The Indian government has been continuously promoting the shift from old fossil fuel vehicles to electric vehicles. In India, Both centre and state governments have been promoting the shift to electric vehicles by new policies and subsidies. However. one of the major concerns for India is that currently, all these electric vehicles are being run by lithium batteries which are considered to be the heart of electric vehicles,” Verma told Mongabay-India.

But he noted that “in India, lithium batteries are only assembled, not manufactured, though a lot of people and companies are working toward the manufacturing process there has been no success till now.”

Vivek P. Adhia, who is the country director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities explained to Mongabay-India that “across the mobility segment, there are several success stories” if one unboxes it.

“For instance, the two-wheeler, three-wheeler and bus segments warrant an immediate transition towards e-mobility, as total costs of ownership are far more attractive even today. The difficulty is mainly related to the private cars segment, which still has a long way to go despite shared-mobility playing catch-up. But otherwise, there is a compelling opportunity for an accelerated transition to electric vehicles,” Adhia said.

Verma also highlighted that the growth of electric vehicles is happening in India especially in two-wheelers and three-wheelers.

“The two-wheelers segment of India is one of the largest in the world. In the last 2-3 years, a lot of new two-wheelers and three-wheelers manufacturers have come up to capture the rise and growth of electric vehicles in India. The Indian government knows that if the electric vehicles receive a positive response from consumers in these two sectors then four-wheelers and another segment will automatically follow. A lot of different states in Indian have started adopting electric buses or plan to do so, this also motivates and promotes the use of electric vehicles amongst the public. One of the good things about the EV market in India is that it is growing at a very good and constant pace,” said Verma.

An electric rickshaw battery charging hub in Varanasi. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.
An electric rickshaw battery charging hub in Varanasi. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

On a query related to batteries used in electric vehicles and a sustainable supply chain for minerals used in them, Adhia said, “sustainable, resilient and equitable mobility solutions should be devoid of any significant dependencies or geopolitical considerations and such; like what happened with the first wave on fossil fuel-based approach with few concentrated oil producers, or what is happening now with mainstream battery technologies dependent on metals and minerals extracted only across a few regions.”

“Fortunately, there are many upcoming technologies and solutions available e.g. sodium batteries, that aid decentralised adoption and growth – especially for countries like India and others who are looking to go big with electric vehicles,” Adhia said.

Read more: As India plans clean energy transition, questions remain about impact

Government considers electric vehicles as the game changer

In October 2020, while speaking at the India Energy Forum, PM Modi had listed increasing the contribution of electricity to decarbonise mobility and achieving the renewables target of 450 gigawatts as one of the seven key drivers of India’s energy map.

Researcher Narayan Gopinathan in his Master’s thesis ‘Life cycle assessment of electric and combustion vehicles in India’ submitted to the University of British Columbia said that his research indicates that electric vehicles are more environmentally benign than their combustion-powered counterparts, even when charged using a carbon-intensive power grid like that in India.

“However, the benefits are blunted by the high carbon intensity of the energy that comes from the power grid. As the grid adds renewable energy capacity and becomes less carbon-intensive, the benefits of electrification will increase further when compared to gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles,” said Gopinathan in his thesis.

His study said that the reuse of the battery for grid storage can greatly improve the environmental outcomes of the electrification of vehicles. It said the “preliminary quantification of the environmental benefits of the synergy between electric vehicles, energy storage, and renewable energy suggests that it can be substantial.”

Gopinathan noted that India should expand its efforts to electrify its transportation sector, and simultaneously add renewable energy to its power grid to maximise the benefits of this shift.

“In addition, it should enable the development of a second life battery supply chain so that the batteries that are at the end of their vehicular lives can be repurposed for grid storage. This will maximise the environmental benefits of this transition and enable the country to reduce its GHG footprint to the greatest possible extent, while enabling its people to enjoy the full benefits of modern energy and transportation services,” the study said.

Read more: Still charging: India’s electric vehicle plan


Banner image: Experts want the government to push for mass adoption of electric vehicles for public transport and electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

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