Modi government pushes for alternative fuels, electric vehicles in bid to curb air pollution

The Modi government is making a big push to promote alternative fuels. Showing that it means business, it has prepared a detailed blueprint to spur investments.

Rashme Sehgal January 27, 2018 18:14:41 IST
Modi government pushes for alternative fuels, electric vehicles in bid to curb air pollution

The Modi government is making a big push to promote alternative fuels. Showing that it means business, it has prepared a detailed blueprint to spur investments in the use of bio-ethanol produced from a ligno-cellulosic biomass and not the conventional molasses-based ethanol production.

This new technology aims at achieving 20 percent ethanol blending in petrol by 2030. The oil ministry in a draft paper has stated that, “ The target of generating cumulative 2G (second generation) ethanol production capacity of 1 billion litres per annum will be achieved within a budget of Rs 5,000 crore.’

Minister of Roadways and Surface Transport Nitin Gadkari also said recently that bio-ethanol production will require the setting up of 1,500 industrial units in villages that will provide jobs for 2.5 million villagers.

India has already introduced blending of fuel with ethanol but the quantities remain small. State-owned refiners are also in the process of setting up ethanol plants.

The other alternative fuel technology being explored is methanol production from coal and bio-mass. China is successfully blending 15-20 per cent of its fuel with methane. One million gallons of it is being blended with gasoline in the United States every year. Taking a step in that direction, Coal India is shortly expected to set up a coal-based methanol plant in West Bengal.

Modi government pushes for alternative fuels electric vehicles in bid to curb air pollution

File image of Minister of Roadways and Surface Transport Nitin Gadkari.

Methanol has all the qualities of ethanol, but without the limitation of supply that ethanol faces since the latter is produced from food crops. Methane is a clean burning, high flame speed fuel that was the prescribed fuel in all major automobile races in the world from 1965 till 2008. One of the biggest advantages, which the oil ministry mandarins realise only too well, is that methanol can be produced from any biomass, including municipal solid waste, of which India produces enormous quantities.

Methane is one of the best tools to fight vehicular pollution since it contains 35 percent oxygen that helps to complete the combustion of fuel and more important, it reduces harmful particulate emissions which have emerged as a major health hazard in India.

Not only are the alternative fuels less costly to produce than those obtained by refining crude oil, but switching to them requires no change either in the design of automobile engines or the energy infrastructure of a country.

NITI Aayog member and chairperson of the Methanol committee VK Saraswat believes methanol will go a long way in helping mitigate India’s dependence on petroleum imports and at the same counter problems associated with global warming..

Saraswat also feels that since people in rural areas continue to use cow dung, they can be given a methane stove while Gadkari has also proposed the use of methanol fuels for boats in inland waterways.

The alternative fuel industry could be worth over Rs one trillion according to Gadkari, especially since India is the third largest energy user after the US and China.

The Modi government is committed to switch all automobile sales in India to Electric Vehicles(EV) by 2030. This is a point that Gadkari has also reiterated when he emphasises the need to move over to more green-friendly alternatives.

The Norwegian Ambassador to India Nils Ragnar Kamsvag believes this is completely doable. He cites the example of how every third car being sold in Norway today is an EV and how his country is using the world’s first battery driven passenger electric ferry by the name of MS Ampere to cross a Norwegian fjord.

Kamsvag has described the cost of crossing this six kilometre stretch at around Rs 400 and yet, the ferry is transporting 360 passengers and 120 cars at one go.

The way forward for EVs, according to the Norwegian model, was to give them tax exemptions while increasing the taxes on combustion engine cars. The other thrust area was to build 8,755 charging stations, which works out to one per 21 electric or hybrid cars.

Automobile expert Murad Ali Baig makes exactly the same point. "At present, EVs are not very practical because the storage capacity of even the best batteries remains low. The government is imposing high taxes on both imported EVs and on their batteries. If the government is serious about bringing over this changeover, it has to ensure no GST on EVs. And no custom duty either," Baig added. He further said, "In London, EVs are allowed to move around in the central city without having to pay congestion tax. They have to be encouraged.’

Baig cites the example of e-rickshaws which presently ply on Delhi streets. "They work on a standardised battery, but most e-rickshaw drivers are known to steal power with the cops looking the other way."

The other problems with EVs, says Baig, is that their batteries are extremely expensive. "In the west, when you buy a car, the battery is given on a long lease. This is the case even in California."

Indian Space Research Organisation has come out with a demo vehicle using hydrogen itself as a fuel. G Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the space agency, says hydrogen-based systems would be the right choice in the long run given their potential to become the fuel of the next generation.

In hydrogen vehicles, hydrogen is stored in compressed form, which combines with oxygen in the air to generate electricity, which is used to charge fuel cells to power the motor.

Several automobile manufacturers believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future. Baig agrees, saying, "Hydrogen is a very powerful and efficient fuel. But this is also a very expensive technology and in order to introduce it, we need to build up a very large infrastructure."

Author and environmentalist Prem Shankar Jha has, however, expressed several reservations about EVs which he feels the government needs to address.

For one, EV batteries are extremely heavy. The lithium-ion battery in Tesla weighs 540 kg and contains close to 10 kilograms of lithium.

Jha points out that the demand for lithium far outpaces its availability. The US Geological Survey has warned that there is only 13.1 million tonnes of lithium available on the earth’s crust whereas the rising demand for lithium works out to
half a million tonnes annually.

Jha, therefore, recommends the conversion of urban solid waste into methanol. The technology for converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen obtained from biomass to transport fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis has been known for a hundred years and was first used to convert urban solid water into methanol commercially in the US way back in 1922.

The other alternative is to source renewable energy (REs) to run EVS. The US-based Lawerence Berkeley National Laboratory has calculated that REs, both solar and wind energy, can help an EV owner save Rs 40,000 annually in fuel savings.

Adapting the Berkeley study to Indian conditions, managing partner of Equitorials Jai Sharda pointed out that while the Berkeley lab study assumes no increase in the cost of international crude oil, it considers the base case for India as one with only 39 GW of installed Solar capacity and 58 GW of installed wind capacity by 2030.

However, India has already installed 16.6 GW of solar capacity and 32.7 GW wind capacity in 2017, which shows India's rapid progress in RE.

Sharda, along with his partners, has calculated, "If India is able to install the targeted 180 GW solar and 110 GW wind power by 2030, the output from these two sources would be around 18% of the total electricity generation. This is significant because while the average cost of electricity generated by solar PV and wind are expected to fall to Rs 1.71 and Rs 1.57 respectively, the cost of electricity from non-RE sources is expected to rise to Rs 4.57 by 2030, even by conservative assumptions. Keeping this in mind, the average cost of electricity produced in India would be around Rs 5/kWh."

With these costs, an EV owner would be able to save over Rs 36,700 a year in fuel costs over an ICE vehicle. With the difference in the capital costs of both these vehicles expected to be in the range of Rs 1.08 lakhs, an EV owner would be able to recover the incremental cost of an EV within just 3 years. In case the entire electricity consumption for EV vehicles were to be sourced from RE sources, fuel cost savings for EVs could increase by another eight per cent which works out to another Rs 39,636.

Jai Sharda pointed out, "At a national level also, there will be a significant financial impact of this transition to EVs. Moving to EVs would help India reduce its crude oil consumption by 360 million barrels per annum. Assuming that international crude oil prices continue to grow at their historical rate of 2.7 percent and reach around US$ 96 per barrel by 2030, the move to EVs would help India save $ 7.8 billion annually by 2030. Given both, the national balance of trade, as well as the national energy security, this would be a massive step to achieving self-reliance in the energy sector. “

The NITI Aayog is exploring all these alternative fuel sources.

According to the Indian Oil Corporation chairman B Ashok, there is scope for every kind of fuel to be used in the country given that the prime minister has set a target of reducing import dependence on hydrocarbons by ten percentage points to 67 per cent by 2022.

So far, experts believe that ethanol is one of the most environmentally friendly fuels. Mixed with gasoline, it has been called `gasohol’. The question is how soon India can introduce both methanol and ethanol in increased capacities to come up with more environmentally friendly fuels.

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