Will India poison its own citizens with Electric Vehicles?

//Will India poison its own citizens with Electric Vehicles?

Will India poison its own citizens with Electric Vehicles?

Authors: Karthik Krishna and Sushant Chopra

Main purpose of this article from Socio-Tech Academy (STA) is to highlight serious concerns regarding penetration of Electric Vehicles (EVs) in India. Authors believe that Indian entities promoting EVs have not paid enough attention to potential negative implications, specific to Indian scenario, and are primarily driven by peer-pressure. STA urges Government of India to address concerns raised from a holistic pollution-mitigation and security standpoint.

Electric Vehicles can be extremely DIRTY

The global hype around EVs is substantial and it is branded as a zero emission and environmentally friendly transportation alternative to fossil-fuel burning vehicles. It is very important to understand that this may not always be the case. EVs use electricity and therefore particulate matter pollution and greenhouse gas emissions due to EVs are tied to the source of electricity. The net environmental impact of driving EVs in Norway or Sweden will be vastly different from driving the exact same vehicle in India or China.

The Hindu quotes Mercedes-Benz India Managing Director and Chief Executive Roland Folger asking for India to learn from Europe’s mistakes with EVs. Forger states that a kilowatt-hour energy consumed by EVs that is “generated from coal and gas as compared to a litre of oil is more polluting than a Bharat Stage IV vehicle.”

India’s power generation capacity is projected to more than double from existing state to an estimated 670GW by 2030 with more than three-quarters of this new production is to be met by new coal-based capacity. Despite India’s ambitious commitment to 100GW Solar capacity by 2022, and its pledge to generate at least 40% energy from renewable sources, the reality is, there is likely to be a net increase in coal based power generation. While coal power is losing its economic attractiveness when compared to wind and solar, the fact is, India increased its coal imports by 12.4% to 18.49 million tonnes (MT) in January, 2018. This is without significant EVs penetration. Indian Institute of technology, Ropar estimates a need for 166 GW of additional generation capacity for total electrification of Indian transportation sector.

Coal has been identified as the single biggest source for pollution and resulting deaths in India after poor biomass burning practices. Unless India rapidly accelerates towards nuclear power (there is no clear indication of that happening), EVs in India are on track to be directly responsible for increase in India’s coal power output. The worst part about this is the fact that India’s coal power plants have extremely poor pollution controls. Only 10% of Indian thermal power plants have basic pollution controls (desulphurization, particle controls) when compared to 75% in European Union and 60% in the United States.

To sum it up, hyperbole aside, EVs in India are likely to be the dirtiest mode of transportation on planet earth.

Over-burdening Indian Power Sector

In 2015, there were 311 million Indians without access to reliable power, and Indian grid infrastructure has transmission and distribution losses averaging 26%. Even without plugging in a single electric vehicle, India’s power sector needs significant investment and resources to provide power to all and to do it efficiently. In order to do this while not worsening the currently unacceptable pollution levels, it will take strong political will and nothing short of a miracle.

Those blinded by the EVs hype need to be educated on the fact that globally and even more so in India, there is dearth in understanding the grid impacts caused by the EVs. Better understanding its grid impacts and integrating EVs, means diverting more money and resources and over-burdening the already strained Indian power generation and distribution sector.

Contradicting its own Government, Niti Aayog – India’s premier policy making body – challenged aggressive pursuit of EVs with the reasoning that they are neither cost-effective nor sustainable. Dr. VK Saraswat, a Niti Aayog member and a former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief, seems to agree with us that electricity is not the answer to India’s clean transportation needs.

Energy Security and Resiliency

The advert of Smart Grids – over-laying Information and Communication (ICT) technologies over the power grid – has created new vulnerabilities from a security and privacy standpoint. It should not be hard to understand that connecting more devices to the grid creates more entry points (a larger attack surface) for hackers and cyber criminals. Large scale EVs integration will only add to the vulnerabilities. Total dependence of transport sector on electricity means creating a single point of failure for both power and transportation. Decoupling the two should improve energy security and resiliency.

Get Priorities Straight

Embarrassingly, India is tagged among the worst polluted countries today. Given India’s unacceptable and lethal pollution levels, doing nothing is not an option. Our recommendation is for India to get its priorities straight and shift towards an aggressive yet more pragmatic pollution mitigation approach. It is important to recognize the difference between a climate risk mitigation approach and a pollution mitigation approach. While there are overlaps

in sources (coal power plants and diesel fueled vehicles for example), there are also differences and the potential impacts of global warming are vastly different from particulate matter pollution choking Indian cities today. Once again, recognising the difference and planning accordingly will be critical. United Nations giving a strong political intent in December 2017 to combat pollution, is a step in the right direction. India needs to proactively play a leadership role in such efforts on the global stage.

Time for India to open its eyes on the real dangers that come with overambitious EVs goals and join other global powers in pushing towards a safe and sustainable future in a pragmatic way.

Alternative Approach

Rather than putting all of India’s energy eggs in the electricity basket through EVs, we recommend that India should divide and conquer its pollution problem.

India should pursue separate goals for power and transport sector along these lines:

  • Allow power sectors to integrate as much solar and other renewables as possible as a replacement for dirty coal generation NOT to meet additional demand from EVs.
  • Modernize grid to improve efficiency and lower losses while ensuring that growing security vulnerabilities and privacy concerns are adequately addressed.
  • Focus on improving mass transit instead of selling EVs hype.
  • Aggressively pursue alternative fuels that take India towards a cleaner environment while leveraging existing liquid fuel distribution infrastructure such as the ones owned and operated by Indian Oil. Indian Oil is already leading the drive for cleaner fuels and working on production pathways for Hydrogen as an auto fuel.

Global Developments on Hydrogen Society

Our recommendations are consistent with global developments to transition to a cleaner transportation while pursuing energy diversification through a transition towards a Hydrogen Society. Japan plans to showcase its state-of-the-art hydrogen infrastructure when it hosts 2020 Olympic Games. Norway, among the fastest adaptors of EVs is racing Australia to produce Hydrogen fuel for Japan. German city Hamburg has already established Hydrogen fueled public transit systems. Lastly, the Trump Administration led US Department of Energy has committed resources to overcome technical challenges in Hydrogen delivery, Fuel Cells and other relevant domains.

Closing Comments

As we have already pointed out, based on projections EVs in India will only increase coal power generation and therefore directly lead to further poisoning of India’s overall air quality. EVs will overburden Indian power sector and increase security vulnerabilities.  It will be criminally callous for Indian authorities to ignore health, security and economic dangers that this brings to India.

To put all this differently, India’s overambitious plans towards 100% EVs maybe be akin to drinking poison when thirsty.

By | 2018-03-18T15:52:21+00:00 February 21st, 2018|Energy Infrastucture|8 Comments


  1. Bob Armstrong February 24, 2018 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    Interesting question ;
    What I call the 0th law of sustainability is John Christy’s ( https://www.nsstc.uah.edu/users/john.christy/ ) :
    ” If it’s not economically sustainable it’s not sustainable ” .

    Centralized electric power plants tend to be more efficient than smaller ones and , in the case of coal can even be located at the mines . Modern plants are quite clean . CO2 far from being a pollutant is the anabolic half of the respiratory cycle of life . It is visibly greening the planet but has an undetectable effect on temperature .

    Heavy electric vehicles can require massive , quarter gigawatt charging currents to charge quickly .
    On the other hand , the notion has been presented to have magnetically coupled wireless charging pads at bus stops making the charging seamless and distributed .

    Hydrogen may have a niche making use of otherwise uneconomic intermittent solar and wind .

    All of these teks need to be considered in terms of the niches they economically serve — as per the 0th law .

    • Socio-Tech March 12, 2018 at 6:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Bob.

      Along with sustainability, security is a critical factor in our view. We wish to create public awareness on the misleading notions regarding electric vehicles (zero emissions is simply a lie). We strongly urge policy makers to support diversification in energy portfolio and improve energy infrastructure’s resiliency against natural and man-made disasters.

  2. Stan J. March 17, 2018 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    The authors completely failed to acknowledge one important trend in developing countries like India. As more people are getting economically stronger, they want to buy a car. This has already happened in China, which led to massive increase in air pollution from internal combustion (ICE) cars. When you factor in pollution form ICE, then EVs ALWYAS win. The pollution from coal powerplants generating equivalent “miles” in EV will always produce less pollutants vs. ICE. The authors are isolating the growing economic trend. If you don’t have cars and then produce more coal energy for EVs, then of course, air pollution increases. Therefore, this article is misleading. In addition, the fact that attention is given to hydrogen as an energy source for transportation demonstrates lack of fundamental understanding of the topic. Trump is well recognized for his anti-science, fossil lobby supporting agenda and therefore, reference to him demonstrates who is behind all of this desinformation.

    • Socio-Tech March 17, 2018 at 8:38 pm - Reply

      Here are rebuttals to a couple of specific points made in this comment:
      [1] Failed to acknowledge that as Indians get economically stronger, they want to buy more cars – Third bullet point in the recommendations section states “Focus on improving mass transit instead of selling EVs hype.” We recommend that India emulate Europe in mass transit instead of the Chinese or American transportation model.
      [2] When you factor in pollution from Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars, EVs always win – Simply a lie. We already referred to Mercedes-Benz India Chief’s views on this. And here is an article that states that within an Indian context, if diesel buses are replaced by EVs, the overall Well-To-Wheels emissions may be 80 per cent higher! https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/are-electric-vehicles-really-green/article22826789.ece

  3. Andy Sage March 18, 2018 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Arguably, moving to Electric Vehicles is not the root cause of the problem; the same could happen if all households starting running 4 aircon units 24 hrs/day?

    • Socio-Tech March 18, 2018 at 3:41 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Andy.

      As India’s huge middle class becomes more wealthy and acquires more buying power, it is only natural for Indians to expect a higher standard of living. They will demand access to better transportation, air-conditions and other home appliances that depend on a secure and reliable power grid. India has taken measures to very aggressively pursue solar. However, adding electric vehicles (EVs) into the mix will most likely completely negate gains solar makes in “greening” the energy supply. Energy supply security and grid overburdening are other serious issues that could get exponentially worse with the addition of EVs in India.

      Our recommendations take all these factors into account.

  4. Robert Schutz March 19, 2018 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    I appreciate the reasoned approach this article takes in evaluation of energy flow from the earth to the plug and highlighting the basic inefficiencies and pollution in EVs that rely on dirty sources of electricity to powers transportation from the plug to the wheel. Clearly, investment in better infrastructure for distribution and delivery of electricity is needed as India modernizes its grid infrastructure. However, ending this article with the conclusion that a Hydrogen Society may be the answer, is problematic.

    Hydrogen is not a primary fuel. H2 is not a naturally occurring compound on earth. It must be generated by processing hydrocarbon fuels, which create pollution; or by electrolysis which consumes electricity which, based on your own reasoned analysis creates pollution. In the earth to wheel energy flow for the hydrogen economy, a minimum of 30 KWHr of electricity is needed to generate a kilogram of H2. An additional 13 KWHr are consumed in transportation, distribution, pressurization and storage before the H2 in a vehicle. In a fuel cell vehicle, the H2 is used to generate electricity to power the vehicle. Bottom line is fuel cell vehicle are simply EVs that run on H2 as a temporary energy storage medium.

    The efficiency of state-of-the art fuel cells is about 60%. That means 40% of the energy wasted. A typical EV gets about 2.8 miles per KWh consumed. A typical FC vehicle gets about 60 miles per kilogram of H2 consumed. Therefore, converting and comparing the energy consumed by both EV and FC vehicles, the EV is twice as efficient as an HV and produces less than half the pollution. Suggesting Hydrogen, which is secondary fuel generated by electricity as a solution to using electricity directly in vehicles is problematic.

    I am not anti-hydrogen, but the full context of earth to wheel should be analyzed and considered before suggesting FCs as an alternative to EVs.

    • Socio-Tech March 19, 2018 at 9:03 pm - Reply

      Dear Robert – Thank you for your comment. This is exactly the type of healthy debate we intended to trigger with our article.

      Yes, we did highlight Hydrogen Society as a possible answer. However, our specific recommendations include a focus on improving mass transit and aggressive pursuit of alternative fuels that leverage existing liquid fuel distribution infrastructure instead of overburdening the power grid. If fuels other than pure hydrogen meet these requirements, they will have our genuine support.

      Please note, one of the hyperlinks provided within the article points out Niti Aayog’s push for Methanol with the argument that it is easier to store than hydrogen and burns cleaner than fossil fuels. According to that source, Methanol can be obtained from sustainable bio sources and it is now also possible to manufacture synthetic, low-carbon methanol. India is investigating the setting up of a Rs 5,000 crore Methanol Economy Fund. We wholeheartedly support this initiative because it is consistent with our recommendations.

      We also provide a link to Mercedes-Benz making an argument that vehicles using Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) with tight emission controls will be LESS polluting than EVs in India. In other words, contrary to the hype, EVs make the problem worse. Again, we agree with this German company that tightening of emission controls on ICE vehicles maybe a better alternative to EVs in India.

      We pointed to IndianOil leading the drive to cleaner fuels. IndianOil is India’s top-ranked corporate on Fortune Global 500 list and its Research & Development focus areas include biofuels and optimal Hydrogen-Compressed Natural Gas (HCNG) blends. These are in addition to investigating sustainable Hydrogen production pathways and applications in Fuel Cells.

      Like you said, full context of earth to wheel must be considered. Whether Hydrogen Society is the best answer or not, we are of the view that EVs are definitely the wrong answer for India.

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