In India, Electric Cars Are Not The Solution To Fighting Pollution

Posted by Sharat Karekaatt in Society
January 6, 2018
 Early last year, I read an ambitious project proposed by the government that is aimed at revolutionizing how Indians drive around town.

The report suggested that India is planning to go fully electric, starting with restructuring the conventional Public Transport System to an EV-based one running on swappable batteries. Though the idea of swappable batteries was soon scrapped, the government’s stance on Electric Vehicles appears to be stronger than ever.

Road Transport and Highway Minister Nitin Gadkari announced that by 2030, the entire fleet of passenger vehicles will be replaced by electric ones. Conform or be bulldozed out he threatens.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, sure. And in a gradually dying earth, such measures are significant. But the question is, in a market like that of India, aggressively pushing for such a scheme, a wise decision?

I believe, the government apart from making an unrealistic market forecast, also are in complete disregard for the environmental effects of operating these vehicles.

Let me point out few problems, that more I read about, more obvious it becomes.

1. So when you hear a Union Minister make a tall claim, you expect that there is a proper road-map set in place and is ready to roll. But it doesn’t seem like it, as the Road Transport Ministry and NITI Ayog are still at a crossover how to go about it. Many ideas are being floated, but all are in ‘shall be’ and ‘will be’ stage. No solid plan has been proposed. Without adequate planning, such a push at present stage would lead to a lot of confusion couple of years down the lane, without any concrete results.

2. A major roadblock is lack of proper infrastructure in our country. India got its first charging station only in November 2017 as compared to around 50,000 petrol pumps. Even building dedicated charging points won’t help as they can only manage limited vehicles at a time.

A large-scale conversion to EVs would cause massive disruptions in daily life as the demand becomes unmanageable. We are used to driving into a gas station to fill the fuel and drive out of there in five minutes. One has to wait a minimum of an hour to charge a single battery. So will we be waiting at a charging station from now on, and if there’s a long queue, endless waiting to get a charging point for ourselves?

Secondly, for regular office goers, in such a case, the best option to charge batteries will be at home or office parking lot. Building infrastructure to allow such changes at malls, tech parks, and apartments etc. is going to require a lot more thought, sustained effort and capital. Also as citizens, every one of us should ready ourselves to face a lot of inconveniences as this transition is not going to be easy. Swappable batteries are a great option for public transport vehicles, but they pose challenges related to battery warranty for self-owned ones. The project, as I mentioned earlier, was scrapped by Mr Gadkari without any explanation.

3. Right now, the most efficient batteries used in EVs are Lithium Ion batteries. An estimated 63kg of Lithium is used in a 70 kWh Tesla Model S battery pack.

According to US Geological Survey, the total amount of lithium reserved on Earth is 14M tones. The entire global production of lithium is 160,000 tones in 2015, and if we are pushing for EVs at this rate, it is estimated that global demand will reach around 1M ton per year before 2040. So, can this growth be sustained? In the long run, industry experts say, No.

4. India is majorly a coal-powered country. So, if we are replacing more than 70 million conventional cars/bikes/rickshaws off the road, and introducing the same amount of EVs, the estimated power demand will increase leaps and bounds.

It is claimed that EVs that depend on coal for their electricity is actually worse than a diesel engine. Do we really need to push an industry so aggressively which would demand more fossil fuel based energy generation?

Secondly, Indian metro cities, especially New Delhi, are facing huge power shortages during peak summer season. Add this demand to the total and imagine for yourself the power woes. Aren’t we replacing one fossil energy demand with another as there is no adequate alternative power system in place?

5. Apart from that, due to higher use of heavier metals in the production of EVs, it has been estimated that EVs create three times as much toxicity as conventional vehicles.

The use of extremely powerful solvents in the creation of lithium electrolytes and cathodes has been linked to everything from cancer to neurological problems. A study on the environmental life cycle of EVs claims that they exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts. Also the need for a strong disposal system of used batteries to avoid environmental consequences arises.

So it begs the question, are we ditching one evil for another? How green it’ll be anyway?

The problem according to me is that we are trying to find one single alternative to the dilemma of global warming. I’m not sure if that’s the way to go. We would need EVs for sure, but then we will also need to explore scores of other options like hybrids, biodiesel vehicles and better mass transport system. And the option of swappable batteries for public transport system shouldn’t be scrapped, but studied and tested at small scale.

Pollution can be mitigated with a combined effort. However, imagining a single, pollution free machine is like hoping for a miracle. EVs do bring a new set of problems for us to solve and they need be addressed scientifically before we start pushing it in such haste.

On a final note, Minister of state for heavy Industries Babul Supriyo has already laid rest to this government initiative, though.