The prime reason why electric vehicles are pegged to be the future is, they can reduce air pollution. Conventional internal combustion engines rely on fossil fuels as a source of energy and in turn, emit poisonous gases. Fossil fuels like petrol, diesel, and natural gas are naturally limited in quantity and take millions of years to form.
Humans haven’t been able to artificially manufacture these fuels at a large scale and rely on oil extracting countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Malaysia, and Russia. This makes crude oil one of the most valuable commodity on earth and we’ve already seen how many wars and conflicts have taken place to command supremacy over these resources.
India is not an oil-rich country. It has a limited quantity of supply available from a few regions like Bombay High (off the coast of Mumbai), Gujarat, and Assam. These are insufficient to fulfil the domestic demand and more than 80% of the supply is imported. This adds a layer of pressure on the country because it also needs to ensure warm diplomatic ties with various other countries for a consistent supply of imports.
This is where electric vehicles are expected to be a boon. Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on oil imports every year, the country can shift to electricity and mobilise its internal transportation network. However, it’s easier said than done.
Where is the electricity coming from?
We also need to understand how electricity is generated in the country. It definitely is cheap and can cover the costs of owning an EV over a long-term period. But, the problem lies with its production process.
More than 75% of electricity in India is generated by the thermal process. In other words, burning coal. Coal is yet another fossil fuel and ultimately ends up polluting the environment. Even though the country has large reserves of coal, burning it doesn’t solve the base problem, air pollution.
Green sources of energy like hydropower contribute just 10% to the overall output. Wind power stands at 4%, followed by solar at 2%. The most preferred source of green energy is nuclear power and it stands a measly 3%. Developed countries have a higher reliance on nuclear power and can afford to establish more sources of renewable energy, making EVs an ideal way to reduce air pollution via fossil fuels.
Wind power requires a huge array of windmills that are extremely costly to build and setup. A decade back, companies like Suzlon were on a roll with wind turbine production in India, however, the source failed to be feasible for companies and today, Suzlon has a huge pileup of debt.
Even solar energy is hard to depend on because its generation cannot fulfil the requirements. The government has found some unique ways of establishing solar panels, but it still fails to generate enough power. A 750 meter stretch of canal was covered with solar panels in Gujarat at a cost of US$ 2.6 million, and it gave an output of just 1 MW.
The recently booming solar sector is also facing headwind due to many factors, making the possibility of completing Modi’s ambitious targets appear shaky. Government agencies have together scrapped solar tenders of close to 7,000 MW in the past year as state authorities haggle to reduce the cost.
The country’s installed wind-power capacity is 34,000 MW, hydropower 44,000 MW and solar power 25,000 MW, with a target of 100,000 MW by 2022. Wind and solar power have not been provided with the kind of investment that has been made in nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is the way to go
In the end, we’re left with nuclear power as the most viable source. However, India’s current coal-dependent electricity generation is at 194,000 MW. Department of Atomic Energy projects nuclear capability to reach 15,700 MW by 2031. The gap is too wide and we cannot forget that nuclear power requires tremendous upfront capital for setup and a constant supply of nuclear fuel, something that’s not naturally extracted in India and needs to be imported.
For the next few decades, India will continue to depend on fossil fuels for electricity generation and this directly kills the purpose of kickstarting an EV revolution. In the interim, yes, a shift to EV would mean lesser dependence on crude oil imports and India can sustain on its domestic coal reserves to fuel the revolution.
But, in the end, air pollution will continue to exist. While the government is trying to push EVs, it also needs to ensure electricity generation is equally clean.
How is India gearing up for the future?
On the brighter side, the leadership recognises this issue and is actively trying to find a solution. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are actively trying to woo the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for membership. Even though India is not a part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has actively started receiving uranium from Australia and this is often considered to be a diplomatic masterstroke.
The US and India have agreed to build six nuclear power plants in India. On the other hand, India and Russia signed a pact to build six more nuclear reactors at a new site in India. Though, it remains to see whether these government-government deals actually materialise or will be lost in bureaucracy and history forever.
Lastly, India is keen on using Thorium as a nuclear fuel and has been researching for decades. The element is considered to be safer than active uranium, but politics has forced all major countries to run on it and India is technically a lone wolf in this segment. The current timeline suggests it’ll be able to commercially extract electricity out of Thorium reactors by 2050.