Electric vehicles: Building charging station infrastructure a huge challenge

India lacks electric vehicles charging infrastructure
India’s electric vehicles transformation faces challenges such as high prices of electric vehicles, shortage of EV charging stations, and low battery production capacity.

Electric vehicles have finally hit a sweet spot. Automobile manufacturers are investing heavily in EVs for the Indian market. Tata Motors, MG and Hyundai are already selling EVs in India, while some others like Maruti Suzuki and Toyota have adopted a wait and watch approach. Mahindra and Mahindra recently formed a joint venture to accelerate EV adoption in India using swappable high-performance batteries.

All this is happening at a time when vehicular pollution is fogging the cities with its miasma and choking economies, as people are left gasping for breath. Governments are scrambling to tackle the menace of poor air quality. It is heartening to see automobile manufacturers investing heavily on their assembly lines to roll out EVs.

India has been aggressively promoting manufacture and use of EVs across the country since 2015 under its scheme titled Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles or (FAME). Transport minister Nitin Gadkari had made a case for making it compulsory for all officials in central government ministries and departments to use only EVs. Let’s take a look at the current scenario of the availability of EVs and the required charging infrastructure for them in the country.

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Electric vehicles push need charging infrastructure

There is a great deal of encouragement for increased usage of EVs across the country. But do we have adequate EV charging station infrastructure to support them? According to the recent figures provided by the ministry of road transport and highways, 5.20 lakh electric vehicles have been registered in the country. Also, 87,659 EVs including two-wheelers, three-wheelers and four-wheelers have been supported under the FAME scheme.

According to a report by automobile body ACMA, India’s EV market in FY21 comprises 61% electric two-wheelers, 37% electric three-wheelers and light commercial vehicles, 2% electric four-wheelers, and 0.2% e-buses. In the next decade, the number EVs on road will rise substantially. The Indian EV market is expected to grow at 44% during 2020-2027, with annual sales hitting 63 lakh units by 2027. However, India is still in a nascent stage of EV adoption.

The country is faced with several challenges such as range anxiety, high prices of EVs (electric four-wheelers), battery production capabilities, electricity consumption, and a shortage of EV charging stations. Out of all these, the lack of robust electrical charging station infrastructure is a major impediment.

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The MarketWatch report says India would need about 4 lakh EV charging stations to meet the demand for 20 lakh EVs on the roads by 2026. The country has 1,800 charging stations as of March 2021. An independent study by CEEW Centre for Energy Finance indicates that it would need around 29 lakh public charging stations by 2030 to support EV adoption under the base case target of NITI Aayog.

About 21 lakh (71%) chargers would be low-capacity chargers used for supporting two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Lack of space is a hurdle for setting up more charging stations as people need a place to charge their electric vehicles. In India, AC001 and DC001 chargers are the primary choices for public charging places, whereas most 2W, 3W and 4W models do not use them.

Adequate support for grid development to cater to the increased load is another major problem. As per an industry analysis, increased use of EVs will raise electricity demand by 100 TWh by 2030. Other challenges include lack of land, instruments to lease government-owned and agency-owned land to set up public charging stations, and the absence of affordable renewable energy which would mean that charging EVs would increase the burden on an already stressed electricity grid that runs on coal.

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Investment opportunity in EV charging stations

Industry analyst Vijay Anthwal says the transition into the EV market poses a never-like-before opportunity for multiple market stakeholders. He says, “this massive market opportunity might be a key driver of India’s post-COVID economic recovery, creating jobs and economic value, both in existing businesses and establishing new ones”.

The bulk of the charging of these vehicles is expected to take place at home, but accessible charging away from home will also be key to electric vehicles growth. Such on-the-go charge-ups will also need to be as easy and convenient as refuelling an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle today. There are 427 installed charging stations for EVs across the country, out of which 77 are located on major national highways while 350 of them are situated across seven states and union territories Delhi and Chandigarh.

National capital Delhi has 94 charging stations, while Chandigarh has 48 of them. Among the states, Telangana has the highest number of electric vehicle charging stations numbering 50, followed by Rajasthan (49) and Karnataka (45). Delhi-Jaipur-Agra stretch of national highway has 29 charging stations, followed by 24 on Delhi-Chandigarh stretch, Mumbai-Pune (15) and Jaipur-Delhi (9).

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In addition to this, the government has sanctioned 2,877 EV charging stations in 68 cities across 25 states, which are to be installed in the coming days. Today, work is underway to set up charging stations at 22,000 of the 70,000 petrol pumps across the country.

Creating public charging infrastructure can be daunting and expensive. It involves disrupting already congested travel corridors, finding suitable charging spaces and substantial outlays to achieve a decent network of public EV charging infrastructure. Mandating every fossil fuel vending outlet to have EV charging stations is already notified. The pace of such installations needs to be speeded up.

All this need to be supplemented with alternate solutions such as installing charging points within residential complexes, housing societies (including for visiting parking slots), shopping malls, parking lots, railway stations, offices, and small shops. A mandate of reserving at least 10% of parking lots for access-controlled charging points would make EVs even more attractive.

The ministry of Housing and Urban affairs has already amended the residential property bylaws to mandate sufficient EV charging points in housing colonies and apartments. In September, Hindustan Petroleum announced plans to set up 5,000 EV charging stations in three years. Bharat Petroleum plans to build 1,000 EV charging stations in the near term. The joint venture of Reliance Industries and BP also plans to put up EV charging facilities at their existing and new pumps.

Moreover, urban local bodies can mandate at least a minimum number of charging points in the parking lots. The numbers would depend on actual demand. Parking lots could adopt a feasible revenue model for providing electric vehicles charging stations. This could be replicated in parking lots in offices, railway stations and airports with a minimum number of charging stations being stipulated for each site. It is safe to assume that people in general spend at least 6 hours in office. So, even a slow charger on office premises would suffice.

Battery swapping stations could be an alternate strategy. They are easy to install and operate. Such stations can be set up in the above-mentioned locations as well as at petrol pumps. They need less space (as low as 3x2x2m) and battery manufacturers can work on models wherein swapping stations with 4–6 batteries can be provided even at small retail outlets.

This may emerge as a viable option, mainly for electric three-wheelers due to benefits such as low charging time, reduced upfront cost (battery leasing model), and better battery life (charging under controlled environment). In this case too, the requirement for public charging infrastructure is limited and range anxiety would no longer be an issue.

(Rajiv Theodore is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi.)