For India, this may be the right time for the adoption of feasible pathways to have a carbon-free surface transport system in the next two decades
By Ajay Shankar
The UN secretary General has called for treating the present as a climate emergency. For US president-elect Joe Biden, climate is a key priority. France and the UK have decided to become net carbon neutral by 2050.
Electricity generation is the largest user of fossil fuels, and thus a key generator of carbon emissions. Decarbonising electricity generation entirely with renewables and storage is technically feasible. Biden would like to make electricity generation in the US free of fossil fuels in 15 years. The cost of electricity storage has been falling rapidly. India has decided to raise its renewable energy capacity from 80GW to 450GW.
After electricity, the largest use of fossil fuels is in the transport sector. In India, using electricity for train movement is far cheaper than using diesel, and the Railways are moving towards full electrification. As India’s electricity generation becomes gradually free of fossil fuels, the Railways would be moving towards lowering carbon emissions. However, in road transport, the use of petrol and diesel is expected to keep rising in a business as usual scenario. Electric vehicles (EVs) are far cheaper to run now.
The reason EVs don’t have a higher market share is due to the absence of charging stations. Without charging infrastructure, very few EVs are being sold. As very few cars are being sold, setting up the charging infrastructure is not an attractive investment. A critical mass of public charging stations as well as charging facilities in all multi-storey apartments and office complexes is needed. The best way would be for the government to give a policy directive to the electricity distribution companies to create the critical mass of the charging infrastructure in metros and large cities.
It should simultaneously direct the state electricity commissions to consider this investment as being eligible for return, on a par with other capital investments for distribution. As the demand for EVs picks up, this would generate profits. The government should provide full financing as debt through the Power Finance Corporation would not need any budgetary support at all. This investment would also generate demand and help economic revival. As the carbon emissions from each unit of electricity move towards zero, emissions from EVs would also move to zero. This transition from fossil fuels would be driven by market forces without any subsidies or compulsion.
The benefits of reduced air pollution from EVs makes a compelling case for a policy directive for provision of charging infrastructure.
For inter-city movement of trucks and buses, the way forward, as it is emerging in Europe and Japan, is the introduction of hybrid trucks and buses. With fast-charging stations, including battery swapping, along highways, these vehicles would mostly run on electricity, which will be generated ultimately with renewables only. Germany has recently conducted a pilot, of laying overhead electric cables that would enable hybrid trucks to run only on electricity on the highways. India needs to consider this.
It is time to consider going slow on truck, bus and car transport being run on gas as a cheaper and cleaner fuel. Getting locked into long-term ‘take or pay’ LNG contracts and heavy capital investments in LNG terminals, and the distribution network for road transport is not a good idea now. The UK has now decided that from 2030 sale of petrol and diesel vehicles would not be allowed.
The argument of gas being a greener bridge fuel had merit earlier, but has now become dated. The risk is that once large new investments are made for gas supply, a strong constituency emerges in favour of the status quo and against change. India needs to seriously look at the fading away of coal mining and thermal power plants. It also needs to start thinking of the day when the oil refining and distribution network would have to wind down.
There are legitimate concerns that the total reserves of rare earth and minerals may not be adequate to sustain full electric mobility through the present battery technologies. Market forces can reasonably be expected to drive innovation in creating viable substitutes. Auto majors have developed vehicles running on fuel cells using hydrogen as fuel. Hydrogen is a clean fuel discharging water vapour when the engine runs. Producing hydrogen at affordable costs, without carbon emissions, is the challenge. The route is through electrolysis of water using electricity from renewables only.
Europe and Japan have mounted pilot projects for the hydrogen economy to lower costs and scale it up rapidly thereafter. The distribution network is also quite costly as hydrogen has to be compressed at very high pressure. India should undertake some modest measures for learning and creating capacity for the hydrogen economy. The government-financed R&D for lowering costs could give us a competitive advantage.
For India, this may be the right time for the adoption of feasible pathways to have a carbon-free surface transport system over the next two decades. It may even turn out to be a lower-cost option.
Distinguished fellow Teri & former secretary DIPP, GoI. Views are personal