The Indian government has begun to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in the country’s transport sector through its National Mission on Electric Mobility. E-mobility is expected to usher in enormous technical as well as financial innovation – especially given India’s unique demographic divides and business sensibilities.
However, the yet nascent industry faces several challenges, the most immediate of which are:
A. Energy density of lithium-ion batteries
Currently the most common lithium-ion EV batteries are based on lithium – cobalt chemistry. The technology at present offers an average energy density of about 100 – 265 Wh/kg. This limits the driving range of an EV fitted with such battery packs, as with a typical pack capacity of 20 kWh a consumer can at best drive for about 70 miles/110 km on a single charge.
Such driving range – even though adequate for everyday needs within a city – tends to make potential EV buyers reconsider their decision. This is simply because most customers want to able to drive to destinations well beyond city limits on any given day, even if they realistically do so only once in say, every few months. The shortcoming is further amplified by an almost non-existent inter-city network of charging points.
B. Cost of EV battery packs
Lithium-ion battery packs at present tend to account for about 40-60% of the cost of an electric vehicle. This is because the manufacturing of li-ion battery packs has not yet reached the economy of scale that would allow them to be sold at prices below the current market average of about $200/kWh (or between Rs. 13,000-14,000/kWh).
This factor therefore tends to drive up the upfront costs of purchasing an EV when compared to a comparable petrol or diesel vehicle – which again is a deterrent for price-sensitive automotive customers.
C. EV re-charging technology
All traditional petrol/diesel vehicles can be re-fueled within a few minutes, which enables them to be on the road for much longer than EVs for a given unit of time.
Re-charging EVs on the other hand currently involves plugging them into a power outlet. The process takes up to 8 hours on a commonplace 120V power socket, and a couple of hours via fast-charging – where a lot more current is pumped into the battery packs to charge them faster.
However, even (DC) fast charging is painfully slow when compared to re-fueling petrol/diesel vehicles. This implies that EVs at the moment must be ‘grounded’ for considerable lengths of time before they can be driven again. Predictably this renders them unattractive to customers who are frequently on the move, and very nearly useless for commercial and public transit applications.
Despite these limitations though, India is firmly at the cusp of an electric vehicle revolution, for the following reasons:
1. Improvements in battery technologies and EV driving ranges
New battery technologies currently under development include metal-air batteries that are capable of energy densities ranging from 1,200Wh/kg (iron-air) to as high as 13,300 Wh/kg (beryllium-air). Battery packs based on metal-air batteries also claim to offer as much as 800-1000km of driving ranges on a single charge.
Solid-state li-ion batteries on the other hand could be re-charged within seconds and operate at temperatures ranging from well below 0C to as high as 100C. Thus EVs will, within the next few years, begin to offer the same driving range and re-charging times as petrol & diesel vehicles – thereby overcoming their most persistent criticism.
2. Battery swapping capturing industry interest
No other advancement makes more sense for the Indian EV market, since battery swapping slashes EV recharging times to as low as a few minutes – at par with regular petrol/diesel vehicles.
The procedure has also attracted healthy interest from prominent industry players, such as ACME Solar and Essel Infra – which is exactly the kind of impetus needed to scale up a fledgling solution to commercially viable volumes. As more established names enter the space, battery swapping will become the key driver for commercial as well as private acceptance of EVs.
3. Lower purchase costs, driven by accelerating demand for EVs
China is the world’s largest EV market today as it accounts for nearly half of all the EVs sold across the world, and the country aims to sell 1 million EVs in 2018. It is also the global leader in manufacturing li-ion battery packs. The two facets together – spurred on by its internal consumption and its exports – have generated enough demand in EVs for its battery manufacturers to earn profits even at lower price margins.
The trend is bound to have a knock-on effect in India, which at present imports nearly all its li-ion battery packs from its neighbor. Thus as prices deflate, EVs will start to make economic sense – especially for corporate fleets whose operations are primarily limited to intra-city routes.
Lower purchase costs – together with battery swapping – will also make them a sensible option for the cost-conscious (and still expanding) cabs and goods delivery services sector.
4. Cheaper running costs of EVs
India’s capacity addition for solar and wind energy outpaced capacity addition in coal-fired power in 2017, and the electricity they generate is already cheaper than coal-fired power (for utility scale projects).
Cheaper electricity from renewables together with greater energy density for li-ion batteries is therefore perfectly suited to lower the per kilometer driving costs of EVs well below those for conventional vehicles. This again will spur greater interest from customers looking for alternatives to ever-volatile petrol and diesel prices.
Additionally, the government of India is scoping for more foreign interest in India’s fledgling EV market, such as through the NITI Aayog’s Global Mobility Summit in New Delhi on 7th and 8th September 2018. The objective is not only to secure more foreign investment, but also to learn from established EV markets about innovation tailored to local necessities, and the potential for EVs to drive a fundamental shift in transportation.
Therefore the era of instant skepticism about EVs is rapidly coming to an end. They are fast approaching commercial feasibility and with it, edging India ever closer to a decisive shift to e-mobility.