Accelerating the e-mobility transition in India

by Robert HK Demann, Head-Smart Infra, Siemens 10 Mar 2021


The Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility & Climate Change, 2015, was a defining moment in the history of climate action. While acknowledging over 23 percent of the transport sector's contribution to the world's energy-related greenhouse gas emission profile, the international covenant resolved to limit global temperature spike to below 2 degree celsius. 

However, the International Energy Agency observes that the realisation of this target is contingent on electrically driving at least 20 percent of the global road transport stock by 2030, supported by an integrated e-mobility ecosystem running on sustainable operational practices.

India's Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles (FAME India) Scheme launched in 2015 aspires to drive a sea change in the transportation landscape through incentivised production and promotion of eco-friendly vehicles. The second phase of FAME, which commenced in April 2019, takes a step further to propose a push for the adoption of e-mobility in mass rapid transit systems, including charging infrastructure and R&D.

The global discourse around the adoption of e-mobility has received exceptional tailwinds lately, owing to steadily declining total cost of ownership, optimised battery cost and an ever-expanding service range for vehicles. The cost of batteries has also fallen rapidly over the last decade. 

For a developing country like India with its unique geographical and bureaucratic complexities, that adds over 50,000 vehicles to its roads every day, the challenge to EV adoption is more of scale than intent. At present, the available charging points are abysmally low compared to its immediate neighbour China that has installed over 400,000 public charging points till end-September 2019. 

However, cost-effective technologies acclimatised to Indian conditions can alleviate the range-anxiety and substantially address concerns around driver access, grid parity, support for public charging owners and electric fleet management. Standardisation is the prime requisite for eliminating the burden of variation for EV customers. 

Private and commercial vehicle operators plying across India's vast terrain expect equal availability of services for their wheels in all the charging stations. It adds substantially to customer confidence and operational convenience to pursue unified hardware standards and plug configurations. 

Services should be available both in very low power settings for two-/three-wheelers that can use battery swapping methods and also for light and heavy vehicles that depend on a mix of fast DC charging and slow AC low power changing. 

Information sharing among charging network operators, interfacing with designated government authorities and implementation of multimodal payment facilities will also drive access, transparency, affordability and feasibility around the e-mobility vision. It will call for multi-stakeholder adoption of equipment standards, communication protocols, data formats, business processes and cybersecurity practices to develop a cohesive EV ecosystem.  

Such penetration is likely to ramp up electricity demand in India. Increased EV charging can affect grid stability in areas of insufficient feeder capacities, with asynchronous charging adding significantly to supply deficits and also bringing quality issues to the fore.

Such bottlenecks can be resolved through a holistic implementation strategy by the EV service providers through careful factoring of variables like the location of stations, types of vehicles catered to and the modes of charging like slow, accelerated, fast or ultrafast/AC or DC. 

It involves seeking expert advice on estimating the impact of EV charging on the grid by location and time, designing of investment plans and building of communication and control infrastructure using high-quality products with remarkable fault tolerance. 

The EV charging business also needs to be profitable in the long run to sustain investor and proprietary focus. In the absence of demand and dynamic tariffs, operators may struggle to cover establishment costs, pressuring both service quality and the business bottom lines. 

However, innovative business models can be leveraged to optimise both capex and operating overheads — for example, targeting existing parking spaces to make them EV ready by installing AC charging and high-power DC chargers (50-240kW). They can manage a mix of slow and fast charging options to match the shift in demand profiles during the day and night and operate high powered charging stations only along the highways to cater to long-distance passengers. 

Besides, using of future-ready connector standards like IEC 15118 and IEEE 2030.5 — that can eliminate technology-debt by making it easy to incorporate new technologies into the portfolio, investment in e-roaming infrastructure to accept multiple payment methods and opting for open standards and collaboration — may go a long way in expanding business reach and profitability. 

However, for a densely populated nation, e-mobility should address much more than merely propelling conventional small cars through environmentally compliant means. With urban administrations across the Indian metropolitans embracing e-mobility as a low-carbon option for heavy-duty transport, fleet-management emerges as a potential action area for intervention. 

Investment in charging infrastructure must not only stand the test of fiscal prudence but also contribute to the hilt towards the comfort and convenience of taxpayers. It is where opportunity charging approaches act as a real force multiplier serving multitudinous ends. 

It involves topping up the batteries for e-buses with high powered DC through pantographs at their terminal stations using short charging cycles of 10-15 minutes. It allows the vehicles to cover extended trips with minimum turnaround times.

India has been experiencing a steady decline in railway cargo volumes, despite surcharge concessions. Merchants' propensity to opt for standard road transports over railways is comprehensible for their last-mile connectivity and shorter revenue realisation cycles. However, shifts in freight mobilisation preference may also project negative tradeoffs for the nation's energy demands and air-pollution profiles. 

The emerging e-highway technologies can contribute significantly to the decarbonisation of the sector by converging the benefits of hyper-connectivity and green mobility solutions through electrified road freight traffics powered by overhead contact lines. 

Moreover, adopting hybrid-drives systems can mitigate access barriers to both electrified and non-electrified geographies, improving penetration, thus accentuating the feasibility of long-haul shuttle transport between remote strategic interests like mines, quarries and forests and their points of consumption.

Siemens estimates that repositioning of freight practices to such technologies can improve the efficiency of on-road logistics assets by over 80 per cent thus aggressively curtailing maintenance overheads and opportunity costs for the operators and service consumers alike. 

For India, a true crossover to a pervasive e-mobility future is possible only when the initiatives are supported through a robust backend with enough compute to crunch the massive volumes of data generated by EV usages to deliver near-real-time insights for planning and executions. It includes data points on driving behaviours, charging patterns, payment transactions, state of charge etc. 

India's future e-mobility businesses will also need comprehensive digital solutions, allowing them to manage complex proprietary infrastructure operations task loads with ease and rapidly scale as per changing market realities. 

The country’s EV future is unmistakably over the horizon. Although not yet in the league of those across the developed world, its domestic market for EV products and services is fast covering grounds to attain criticality. India needs to be ready in infrastructure, policy and mindset. Its posture must be conducive enough to embrace and make most of the strategic shift that can reap rich socioeconomic and environmental dividends.