Ola, Uber and the sustainability challenge of new mobility

Newsletter - March 5, 2020

Fertile ground: Tamil Nadu bans fresh oil and gas exploration in state’s rice bowl, Cauvery delta | Photo: New Indian Express

Ola, Uber and the sustainability challenge of new mobility

Hiring a taxi through a ride-hailing service could emit up to 70% more CO2 than the conventional trips that such services are replacing. This is the takeaway from a new study published by US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). This indictment of ride-hailing services is the latest in a series of questions that have been raised over the environmental sustainability of the modern economy of convenience.

The first-of-its-kind quantitative comparison carried out by UCS was based on data collected from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington and found that time spent on waiting or driving towards a pick-up accounted for about 42% of all ride-hailing activity. According to the study, ride-hailing is increasing vehicular travel, pollution, and congestion. Researchers found that, on average, a solo ride-hailing trip emits nearly 50% more carbon dioxide than one in a private vehicle. Compared to a private car trip, a non-pooled ride-hailing trip produces about 47% more carbon emissions. A pooled trip shared by two commuters emit the same as a private vehicle trip, and about 33% less polluting than a non-pooled ride-hailing trip.

The true costs of convenience are only just being revealed and the numbers don’t bode well. Assessments of the environmental costs of online video streaming, e-commerce, fast fashion and fast food have all surfaced over the last few years with damning revelations. The UCS study is yet another reminder of the environmental costs of convenience that could soon become too substantial to ignore or change course. 

The recent findings have significant and peculiar implications for India, where ride-hailing and delivery services have grown rapidly in recent years. In just a decade, India has emerged as one of the largest and fastest growing markets in the world in the ride-hailing segment. Not only has the industry been among the biggest job creators in recent years, revenue has grown to about USD 37 billion with 207 million users with taxi aggregators making massive impressions on the Indian urban mobility landscape. Taxi fleets run by app-based aggregators alone are estimated to constitute about 15% of the country’s passenger vehicle market by 2025 while the ride-hailing market size exceeds USD 55 billion. Add to this the burgeoning numbers of delivery vehicles and India’s likely future tussle with getting associated carbon emissions under control begins to come into view.

Two of the biggest players in the Indian ride-hailing market, Ola and Uber, have been tussling to dominate the market. While Uber just last month claimed to have market majority having registered 14 million rides per week in 2019-20, a 25% growth over the previous year’s figures, Ola beats Uber comfortably on monthly downloads and has consistently registered around 25 million active monthly users- 30-40% higher than Uber. Unsurprisingly, both companies count India among their biggest centres of growth. Which is why the new findings should be a cause for concern to both new mobility giants. Fortunately, though, the UCS study does offer a way out. Adding weight to calls for electrification of taxi fleets that are growing worldwide, the study says that moving towards all-EV fleets of taxis could make ride-hailing the definitively greener option compared to conventional car trips. While buses and trains still emit much lower amounts of carbon, a ride-hailing trip in an EV would cut emissions by about 50% compared to a private vehicle trip whereas a pooled electric ride-hailing trip would lower emissions by nearly 70%.

In India, while the government has announced plans for complete electrification of three-wheelers by 2023, news reports have also suggested that the Centre is mulling mandating cab aggregators to convert 40% of their fleets to electric by 2026. Unsurprisingly, both Ola and Uber have taken note of the rising calls for electrification. In late September last year, Ola announced its “Mission: Electric” to introduce one million EVs or 20% of its fleet by 2022. Uber India, too, responded last month by announcing plans to make EVs a “meaningful part of the overall portfolio” over the next two years. While e-mobility start-ups have also started to spring up, as far as taxis go, adoption is yet to pick up with only a few thousand e-taxis currently plying Indian roads. The reluctance to adopt EVs was evident in the lacklustre response to state-owned Energy Efficiency Services Limited’s (EESL) tender for 10,000 EVs to electrify government employees’ car fleet worsened by stories about their poor performance.

A big factor is the higher investment costs involved in EVs, which still cost around three times as much as conventional cars. Commercial adoption of EVs still hinges heavily on access to charging infrastructure the present state of which translates to unviable opportunity costs. While experts have also argued for progressive incentives, including per km incentives to drivers for faster adoption in light of the higher investment costs involved in EVs, it seems improbable that large-scale adoption of EVs can happen without subsidised purchase costs for private customers and rapid multiplication of intra-city charging stations for commercial operators.

There is little doubt that convenience is here to stay and the costs are likely to keep piling. Unlike with many other fronts of the modern economy though, there is a big opportunity for optimisation and change in urban mobility, especially for countries like India. All that’s needed is political will and competent policy.

Climate Science

Caution! Heatwaves ahead: The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted March, April and May are “likely to be warmer than usual” this year | Photo: Hindustan Times

Indian summer likely to be warmer than usual: IMD

After a rather harsh winter, India is now bracing for a scorching summer. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted March, April and May are “likely to be warmer than usual” in the northwest, west, central and parts of south India.

But is climate change to blame? Some scientists believe this to be the case in Kerala, which has reported summer temperatures 2-3°C above normal. According to them, the rising sea surface temperature, caused by global warming, has pushed up humidity levels.

UK underwater: Europe’s transport infra needs to adapt to climate change, says UN study

After Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis earlier this month, Storm Jorge lashed across the UK, which battled the wettest February since records began. An average rainfall of 202.1mm of rainfall has been recorded so far as heavy rain and strong winds have displaced thousands across the country.

A possible solution to the widespread flooding was put forth by UK’s Environment Agency chief Sir James Bevan. He suggested developers should avoid building homes on flood plains, and if left with no choice, should make such homes more resilient, such as building garages on the ground floor so that minimum damage is done.

A UN study, meanwhile, has urged Europe to invest more into transport infrastructure that can withstand climate change. The report highlighted larger climate change impacts, such as the washing out of bridges during landslides and floods, as well as smaller, slower impacts, such as how rising heat can cause railway tracks to buckle.

Ocean currents being pushed towards poles due to climate change: Study

A new study, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, claims that in a warming climate wind-driven ocean currents are slowly changing course and are moving towards the poles at a pace of a mile every two years. The study warns that this trend will deplete coastal fishing waters of important nutrients and could also cause sea level rise, heatwaves and extreme storms in surrounding areas.

Coronavirus brings China’s CO2 emissions down 25%

Coronavirus has not only affected people’s health, but also on the climate. With outbreak fears shutting down industry and air travel, China’s carbon dioxide levels in the last three weeks of February have been 25% lower (about 150 million metric tons) than during the same period last year. To put it into perspective, this three-week decline is equivalent to the emissions put out by New York State in the entire year.The Coronavirus outbreak could also affect crucial COP26 talks to be held in Glasgow this November, after travel restrictions have put dampener on preparations.

Climate Policy

Monumental disregard? Indian government ignores suggestions en masse and moves ahead with law to governing 7,500-km coastline | Photo: The Indian Express

Indian govt ignored 90% objections to new coastal zone law

An IndiaSpend investigation found that the Indian government disregarded 90% of the objections raised by environmental groups and citizens to the draft of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification and pushed the final notification in 2019 without publishing the draft in the official gazette, which is compulsory by law.

The law, which opens up India’s 7,200-km coastline to commercial activity, was pushed through without taking into consideration the concerns of coastal communities such as fisherfolk, those objecting say.

Bundle renewable energy with thermal power for 24-hour power supply: Draft policy

India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has come up with a draft policy that aims to provide 24-hour power supply to Indian distributors by attempting a mix of renewable energy and electricity from coal power plants. In other words, this will be ‘reverse bundling’ – costlier thermal energy mixed with cheaper renewable energy.

For the source, the draft suggests a power generating firm will have to provide electricity annually in such a manner that at least 51% of it is from renewables and the rest from a thermal source.

MP govt proposes law to fast-track clearances for industries

The Madhya Pradesh government has proposed a law that will issue 25 types of clearances and licences within a day to investors interested in setting up shop in the state. Ten other clearances will be granted in seven days and five in 15 days through an online platform.

Climate activists score big win, UK court blocks Heathrow expansion plans

Britain’s commitment towards the Paris Agreement was used as grounds by the London Court of Appeal to block the UK government’s controversial plans to build a third runway at the Heathrow International airport. The case, brought to the court by environmental groups, is likely to have wider implications on planning and other climate-related litigation that has surged over the past year around the globe. While the Heathrow Airport has responded to the verdict by announcing intentions to appeal, the government has appeared less than keen to pursue the expansion any further.

Japan plans to tighten restrictions on its export of coal power to developing nations 

In a move aimed to get Japan one step closer to carbon neutrality, its environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi spoke of tighter restrictions on the country’s export of coal power to developing nations. This export is one of the major criticisms of Japan’s national energy policy. This is also part of Japan’s efforts to align itself with the Paris goals.

Air Pollution

On track for improvement? Delhi remains world’s fifth most polluted city, as India prepared to transit to world’s cleanest Euro VI, also termed as Bharat Standard VI compliant fuel on April 1 | Photo: Reuters

India ‘on track’ to supply ‘cleanest’ Euro VI or BS VI emission grade fuel from April 1: IOC Chief

Two years after Delhi switched to Euro VI, or BS VI (Bharat stage VI) grade fuel,  which is ultra-low in sulphur content, petrol pumps in the rest of India are geared to switch to Euro VI emission compliant fuel from April 1, 2020. Currently, petrol pumps supply Euro IV (BS IV) grade petrol and diesel, which has sulphur content of 50 parts per million (ppm). BS VI emission grade has sulphur content of only 10 ppm. The chief of the Indian Oil Corporation, the state firm that controls almost half of the country’s fuel supplies, said almost all refineries began producing ultra low sulphur BS VI compliant diesel and petrol by December 2019, and oil companies are tediously replacing every drop of BS IV grade across the country with BS VI grade fuel. He said the cleaner fuel has reached storage depots across the country, and India is on track for supplying the new fuel. 

Meanwhile, IOC expects a marginal increase in retail prices of the fuels from April 1. IOC has invested around Rs3,000 crore to upgrade its refinery at Haldia, West Bengal, to meet BS-VI emission norms. The company has invested around Rs17,000 crore across its refineries in India to manufacture BS-VI compliant fuel.

Study: Air quality of many Indian cities remain world’s most polluted, China improves

China has dramatically improved the air quality in its cities, but major metros of India still remain the worst polluted cities of the world, according to the latest 2019 World Air Quality Report published by IQAir AirVisual. Fourteen of the top 20 smoggiest cities in the world are in India. Despite the claims of improvement by the Delhi government and the Centre’s launch of the promising National Clean Air Programme a year ago, Delhi has fallen to the fifth-worst spot globally and the most polluted major city in the world. Ghaziabad, a Delhi suburb, remains the worst ranked city in terms of air quality. 

According to the World Health Organization, dirty air kills around 7 million people each year. The World Bank estimates that air pollution-related loss of human life drains the global economy of $5 trillion annually. Vehicular pollution, coal-fired power plants, dust from construction, crop burning and industrial emissions remain the main source of toxic air in India and China. But China’s war on air pollution has managed to bring Beijing, notorious for its toxic haze, from the position of 88 to 199 on the list of world’s most polluted cities. 

NTPC to help set up 25 AQ monitors, the firm had recently rejected emission cutting equipment

State-owned coal power firm National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) will help the Central Pollution Control Board to set up 25 continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations in 12 cities across the country with a financial assistance of Rs80 crore. Recently, the NTPC had rejected the permission to install emissions-cutting technology by GE and other international firms. The coal lobby has pushed back a deadline to cut emission levels to up to 2022, over issues of “high costs and technical difficulties”. 

Study links PM 2.5 to kidney dysfunction

Air pollution impacts every organ of the body, previous research has shown, but the latest research from the US examines the damaging impact of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) on kidneys. Scientists found that higher amounts of fine particulate matter was linked with a higher degree of albuminuria, a marker of kidney dysfunction, as well as a higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease over time.

Researchers said future studies should examine whether efforts to improve air quality reduce rates of chronic kidney disease. The US research is significant for parts of the world where PM2.5 levels are five to 10 times higher than in the US. Researchers said people living in countries with higher levels of air pollution, such as India and China, may face higher risks of developing kidney diseases. Scientists examined the data of 10,997 adults across four sites in the US who were followed from 1996-1998 through 2016. The research was published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Monthly average levels of PM2.5 were assessed based on participants’ home addresses. PM 2.5 comes from burning fossil fuel, industrial processes, and natural sources, scientists said.


Floating power: India's announcement of the world's cheapest floating solar power plant follows a 45% drop in costs in the last two years | Photo: Mercom

India achieves lowest cost of floating solar power in the world

India has achieved the world’s lowest cost of ₹35 per watt in the country’s first large-scale FSPV plant of 70 megawatt capacity. The developers quoted as low as ₹35 per watt to set up a floating solar project, indicating a sharp decline in the investment cost for floating solar photovoltaic (FSPV). The Energy and Resources Institute analysis expects the cost to go down further. The study says the investment cost had decreased in the past two years, with a significant drop of 45% in cost seen since 2018. Major reasons for lower bids was the fall in the cost of floaters because of improvement in manufacturing process, reduction in the material cost, reduction in thickness of floaters, and aggressive biddings, ERI said, adding that it was important to check whether this is not impacting the overall quality of the projects. 

Scientists say degradation in the quality of FSPV projects has a higher potential to impact local biodiversity compared to ground-mounted solar PV. Currently, India has over 1,700 MW worth of FSPV projects in the pipeline.

Coronavirus outbreak in China may hit domestic solar manufacturing in India: Icra

The spread of coronavirus in China is threatening to disrupt the supply of key components required to manufacture solar modules, posing concern for India’s domestic solar developers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). The solar energy sector is already facing several headwinds because of the long delays by state distribution utilities in making payments, ratings agency Icra said. Experts say for domestic manufacturers, sales volumes are likely to be impacted in the last quarter of FY 2020 and in the near term, given this uncertainty. They expect a spike in prices of solar PV modules in the near term from the current level ranging between 20-21 cents/watt that might increase expected bid tariffs. Experts say alternate supply chains other than China in the long run would be critical for domestic IPPs/OEMs. Meanwhile, India’s power minister said the industry is under no compulsion to import solar cells, modules and other equipment from China. They are free to meet their requirements either from the domestic market or alternative sources.

Andhra Pradesh releases 2,984 cr to clear power dues of renewable firms and discoms

The Andhra Pradesh government paid ₹2,984 crore clearing the long pending dues of solar and wind power generators, central generating stations (CGS) and state generating stations up to 2019. Of the total, ₹2,199 crore will go to CGS and SGS, and the rest will go to solar and wind power companies. The money was released to cover 25% losses of discoms between the year 2017 and 2019. The state cleared dues after Andhra Pradesh high court’s order even as it is in dispute with the firms over the issue of renegotiation of power purchase agreement . The PPA  issue has been referred to the AP electricity regulatory commission.

By 2050 renewable energy sector will employ 42 million people: IRENA

The International Renewable Energy Agency has estimated that the renewable energy sector can employ 42 million people globally by 2050. In 2017, 12 million people were working in the sector. The study says the total number of energy jobs could touch 100 million by 2050. The report said the solar energy sector has grown the fastest, which currently employs 3.6 million people worldwide. Asia could account for 64% of jobs in renewables by 2050, the Americas 15%, and Europe 10%, the report stated. In terms of total number of energy jobs, Asia could have over 60% by 2050, the Americas could amount for 13%, and Europe 12%, IRENA said.

Centre to appoint board to help renewable energy investors to cut risks

India plans to set up boards to help the renewable energy sector bring investments. The proposed Renewable Energy Promotion and Facilitation Board  will help developers minimise investment risks over adverse policies of state governments. The central board will be a link between renewable energy developers and state governments and authorities to ensure smooth implementation of renewable energy projects in the country. The board will also coordinate with various financial institutions to enhance access to easy finance, the government said. ET reported that the board will meet once in two weeks, but developers and investors could meet the chief of board every Wednesday. 

Renewable energy investors face difficulties in land procurement and transmission connectivity, and erratic policy changes. Industry experts said payment delays by state distribution companies, curtailment of projects and  state governments threatening to renegotiate power purchase agreements (PPAs) have added to the issues.

India to have renewable energy standardisation cell to ensure high quality

India is set to create a standardisation cell to ensure quality standards in the renewable energy sector. The proposed Renewable Energy Standardisation Cell (RESC) will follow international standards such as International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to apply in Indian climatic conditions. The RESC standardisation cell will interact with subject specialists from research and development institutions, test labs, industries, and Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to seek inputs for developing and updating Indian standards in the relevant areas, Mercom reported. The government’s move is part of its National Lab Policy that aims to create a robust system for testing, standardisation, and certification for the renewable sector. Centre said to reach the target of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022, it was imperative to develop and update the standards for various renewable energy components and set up performance testing and certification facilities to ensure their quality.

Rooftop solar growth remains too slow to meet 2022 target

India’s rooftop solar installation growth is too slow to meet the government’s ambitious target of 40 GW of rooftop capacity by 2022, a Bridge to India report said. The country installed a rooftop capacity of only 1,896 MW in 2019, taking the total rooftop capacity to 5.5 GW. Experts say discoms are reluctant to support installation and integration of rooftop solar energy because of potential revenue loss for each unit of power generated. ET quoted experts saying Maharashtra witnessed the fastest growth in rooftop capacity. Experts point out that developers are moving towards open access where projects are located elsewhere rather than on the roofs of their customers’ premises, because scaling is easier via the open access route. Bridge To India said India added 380 MW in 2019. In 2020, 1 GW of open access projects are expected to come.

Andhra Pradesh to install and supply 10 GW of free solar power to farmers

The Andhra Pradesh government has said it will develop 10 GW of solar power projects as a permanent solution to supply free power to farmers, Mercom reported, adding that the government incurs more than ₹100 billion (~$1.39 billion) to meet the agriculture subsidy, lift irrigation power charges, and aquaculture subsidy annually. To meet the subsidies sustainably, the government felt that there is a need for evolving an alternative mechanism to provide quality power and a nine-hour daytime free power supply to farmers. For this purpose the state decided to form Andhra Pradesh Green Energy Corporation Limited (APGECL) for the installation of 10 GW of solar projects. Andhra Pradesh accounts for 3.4 GW of large-scale solar projects in operations, and approximately 1.6 GW of projects are under the development pipeline as of December 2019.

Electric Vehicles

Sorting out storage: Tesla has been cleared to move ahead with plans to build the world's largest energy storage facility in California, some 10 times the size of its Australia facility | Photo: ArnNet

Tesla to build world’s largest battery storage plant in California

Tesla has been approved to build the world’s largest li-ion battery-based energy storage facility in Moss Landing, California. At 1.2GWh, it’ll be nearly 10 times larger than the one Tesla built at Hornsdale, South Australia. The system will supply stored reserves of solar and wind power and will replace the county’s natural gas-powered plant, whose output has gradually fallen to a tenth of its designed capacity. 

The plant is also expected to boost tax revenue for the county, and yet again proves the case for using renewables and storage in tandem to meet peak power demands. 

India’s Supreme Court summons Union minister for clear answers on EV policy 

India’s Supreme Court has, for the first time, summoned a Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari to explain the government’s position on its EV policy. The unprecedented move is likely influenced by the government’s numerous revisions to India’s e-mobility targets and its lacklustre progress on acquiring EVs, even though state administrations seem to have taken far more progressive steps. 

Gadkari has been asked to present clear answers on: if all new government vehicles should be electric, if all buildings/public infrastructure should have EV charging points, if all public transport should be ‘electrified’, and if petrol and diesel should be slapped with additional levies to cross-subsidise EVs across the country. The minister has, however, previously stated that because of the number of jobs supported by the conventional automotive sector, a ban on ICE vehicles was not advisable, and the government would not set a target date for their full phase-out. The sharp slowdown in India’s auto sector could also be a factor holding the Centre back. 

China employs electric VTOL aircraft to arm hospitals against coronavirus 

The local government in Hezhou, Guangxi province, China, has been transporting medicines to local hospitals, as they fight the coronavirus pandemic, with the fully-electric eHang vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The helicopter-like eHang can access landing spots that are too tight for a helicopter, can carry a payload of up to 140kg and can travel to as far as 31km on a single charge. The aircraft comes equipped with GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), visual sensors and accelerometers, and may also be used to ferry up to two passengers without an on-board pilot. 

Stinky Durian fruit emerges as testbed for superfast battery rechargers

Researchers from the University of Sydney are testing the stinky, fleshy Durian fruit — native to south Asian countries — as a natural supercapacitor, which could be used to rapidly charge li-ion batteries. The fruit’s fleshy, porous mass has high surface area, interfacial active sites and in-plane conductivity, which together could facilitate fast electrochemical reactions by storing and transferring static electricity. 

If perfected, the novel technology could also be a cost-effective and biodegradable alternative to current market technologies.

Fossil Fuels

Fertile ground: Tamil Nadu bans fresh oil and gas exploration in state’s rice bowl, Cauvery delta | Photo: New Indian Express

Oil & gas projects halted in Cauvery Delta, with caveats

A new act passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly has halted all new projects for oil and gas drilling in the Cauvery delta (also referred to as the food bowl of the state) after strong protests by local farming communities. The legislation — called the Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act 2020 — also bars the setting up of zinc and aluminium smelters, a ship breaking yard and tanneries in the region. The ruling could effectively cancel the 28 petroleum mining licenses issued to ONGC, that allowed for exploration over an area of 3,516 sqkm of highly productive farmland, and put a stop to extraction of coal-bed methane and shale gas in the region.

However, as per the act, the state government may add or remove districts that are now protected, as well as drop the ‘prohibited’ status of projects, if it so pleases, by serving a public notice. Yet, the development could embolden other communities to protest against the setting up of industrial-scale projects in sensitive regions. 

GE castigated over supporting coal plants in developing nations

General Electric (GE) seems to be under fire yet again, after being pulled up for being the technology provider to 15GW worth of proposed coal plants in developing nations. The figure would essentially make GE have the world’s seventh largest coal power pipeline, if it were treated as a country. Its support includes supplying equipment to a plant in Indonesia that would come up next to an existing facility that has been held responsible for a spike in local air pollution.

GE has already been served an open letter by activists from 17 countries to “get out of coal”, but the beleaguered firm maintains that its technologies — steam turbines and boilers — make for cleaner coal plants. However, IEEFA has accused it of a desperate, “fire sale”, because it alleges that GE couldn’t fund such expansion back in the US due to stricter emission standards.

US judge rejects White House’s policy, cancels 1 million acres of oil & gas leases

A federal judge in Idaho has cancelled the leases for oil and gas firms, that span an area of nearly one million sqkm, because it has ruled that the White House’s policy to limit public input on the decisions were “arbitrary and capricious”. The sharply worded ruling comes as another blow to the Trump administration’s incessant efforts to open to large swathes of protected lands to oil and gas exploration — that now comes with the tactic of deliberately limiting the time allowed for public comment and opposition to its energy policies.

The ruling also comes as a win for the environmentalists, who were fighting the leases as part of  a larger effort to protect 67 million acres of wilderness. The cancelling of the leases — awarded in 2018 — will protect more than 100,000 sq. miles of habitat for the Greater sage-grouse as well, which is a wild bird whose falling numbers have prompted the IUCN to classify it as ‘Near Threatened’.

BP exits three oil & gas groups over climate disagreements

BP (British Petroleum) has announced that it is exiting three key industry groups over differences in the way the members approach climate action. The three groups are the Western State Petroleum Association (WSPA), the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (AFPM) and the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), and BP’s decision comes, in part, over the lack of consensus towards its support for carbon pricing. The oil & gas giant has also committed to going carbon neutral by 2050, which makes it one of the few in the business to openly acknowledge the climate impact of continued GHG emissions.