The national lockdown to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic has some beneficial side effects when it comes to pollution. The air in most of India's cities is visibly cleaner to the extent that some people even posted pictures of being able to view distant mountain ranges from cities in the plains.
The reduction in pollution in this period has been measured by the Centre for Research on Energy & Clean Air (CREA). It shows a drop in the average PM 2.5 levels to below 20 from 35 and above in previous years.
This improvement in air quality has prompted electric vehicle makers and associated clean-technology suppliers like battery makers to push for faster adoption of electric vehicles once lockdown lifts.
Rajat Verma, a serial entrepreneur, IIT Kanpur, Stanford and Harvard alumnus, and co-founder of Lohum Cleantech, a company that manufactures Li-ion battery packs for low power applications and also recycles battery material, thinks that the urban transportation model needs some reworking.
"Now that we have seen the changes in air quality, I do believe we should have an accelerated effort towards rethinking how transportation is done. Part of it is electrifying and part of it is to explore in what ways should city transportation truly work." - Rajat Verma, co-founder, Lohum Cleantech
Verma says he has an "ABCD" plan that the government should think about acting on. According to him, A stands for accelerating FAME II deployment (government subsidies and incentives rolled out for electric vehicle manufacturing) to allow quicker transitioning to lithium-based electric vehicles.
B stands for bicycles. He says in a post-COVID world there will be a higher demand for private vehicles, mostly for short commutes, which should see demand for electric bicycles as a relatively inexpensive and clean mode of transport.
C is for count. He says the government should be quantitative about pollution and the environment. The automobile industry collectively employs about 1 million people in India, while air-pollution related deaths in India were over 1.2 million in 2017.
A 2017 report by Global Alliance on Health and Pollution suggests that 1.2 million deaths in India were related to air-pollution.
D stands for deadlines. He says the government should set realistic deadlines for different segments of vehicles to shift to electric propulsion or other clean energy forms, even as early as 2023 or 2024. Two-wheeled electric vehicles and electric three-wheelers are now almost at the same price points as their internal-combustion engine (ICE) counterparts.
Electric two-wheeler makers like Hero Electric also think demand is going to rise significantly for electric two-wheelers..
Post COVID-19, the global electric vehicle and electric vehicle infrastructure market is projected to reach 4.18 million units by 2021 from an estimated 3.42 million units in 2020, at a CAGR of 22.1 percent, according to industry estimates
The falling air pollution levels and the need to maintain social distancing by avoiding public transport will lead many buyers to private vehicles. Low-speed electric scooters are likely to see increased uptake.
"“Given the upcoming ‘new normal’ era, consumer focus on sustainable mobility options, preference of sensibly priced electric two-wheelers, and reluctance in going back to the overcrowded public transport system, we see an exponential increase in the number of electric vehicles on road post lockdown." - Sohinder Gill, CEO, Hero Electric
Switching from ICE to electric vehicles would also reduce visits to fuel stations as some electric vehicles are supported by portable batteries and can be charged at home, reducing social contact.
While the charging infrastructure is still in its nascent stage in India, Verma says concepts like battery swapping are only stop-gap measures. However, for a regular average commute, an electric scooter has enough range to last a single day or more.
In the long run, India can benefit from a shift to electric vehicles. The thing is India does not have any known large reserves of lithium of its own. It is dependent on imports. China owns or has substantial investments in most of the world's lithium reserves.
"“The battery is the most expensive components of an electric vehicle. For it to become viable, you need to maximise the revenue potential of a battery. You need to increase salvage value of the battery.”" - Rajat Verma, co-founder, Lohum Cleantech
India's option, therefore, is to focus on recycling to bring down costs. Every lithium traction battery that comes out of a vehicle can be repurposed for static uses, like home inverter storage. This is a second-life use, which can extend its life-span.
And after a battery has been expended, more than 90 percent of material such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, aluminum, and manganese can be extracted and recycled. This extraction of lithium for further use is a business case that EV makers think will bring down battery costs in the long run – much below what ICE vehicles cost to run.
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