Oil dependency and carbon emissions — EVs may not be India’s answer to reducing either, say experts

EVs in New DelhiBCCL

  • The Indian government has been giving a big boost to Electric vehicles (EVs) to meet its climate change commitments.
  • Experts from Gateway House believe that EVs may not be the right way to reduce carbon emission or lower India’s dependency on oil.
  • Instead, exploring hydrogen fuel and getting oil-rich countries to invest in downstream assets may be a better option in the long haul.
The Indian government has been giving a big boost to electric vehicles (EVs) as a part of its ambitions to meet its climate change commitments on fossil fuels. EVs may be trending, however, experts believe that EVs may not be the right answer for India’s requirements.

“In the form of fossil fuels, we have an energy source that’s reliable and it works. EVs have captured the imagination of people due to high-end cars being produced for the super-rich in the west,” said Amit Bhandari, energy and environment fellow with Gateway House.

The central theme of switching over to EVs are two-fold. One is to reduce India’s dependency on oil and the second is to reduce carbon emissions. On both accounts, EVs fail to meet the requirements.
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The dependency conundrum
There was a time when the concern of acquiring enough oil to meet India’s energy demand. But over the last decade, the tables have turned and oil suppliers should be equally worried about demand security. “With its already large market and expected growth, India is going to be a key provider of this demand security,” said Bhandari.

Not only should India invest in oil-rich countries but it should also get them to invest in downstream assets so that both their fortunes are tied together, he explains. On the one hand, India will get protection against price fluctuations, and on the other, it will also be ensuring that its energy demands are future proof.

In pursuing EVs, India may reduce its dependency on oil but it will also create an entirely new dependency as well. “Pursuing EVs at this point of time, very aggressively, is akin to falling into a black hole called the Chinese economy,” said Chaitanya Giri, space and emerging technologies fellow with Gateway House.
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China can afford to be an EV-centric nation because it has an enormous amount of lithium reserves in its own backyard. For India, it will have to look to countries like China, Australia, the lithium triangle — Bolivia, Chile and Argentina — or the Democratic Republic of Congo for its requirements.

“The internal geopolitical stability of Congo is a big question mark. So we really don’t want to create a new set of dependencies by over-focusing on EVs,” said Giri. South America, on the other hand, is a very long logistic distance for India to consider.

The problem of carbon emissions
Until and unless India switches over to renewable sources of energy at the source, it will only be transferring it problem of carbon emissions from the tailpipe to the back-end, explains Bhandari.
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“EVs are trying to address the question of clean air. Moving towards natural gases is probably a better solution and can be done with the existing infrastructure,” he said.

This is because, at the end of the day, electricity is generated using coal, oil or other fossil fuels — which still produce their fair share of carbon dioxide.

EVs, on the other hand, will be duplicating hundred and million dollars worth of oil infrastructure, which we have created over the past century. And, India will be doing it at a time when companies are struggling to stay afloat and to pay wages to their existing employees — to create something from scratch, explains Bhandari. It will also put the jobs of nearly 8 million Indians who work in the Gulf at risk.
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Is there a third option?
Experts suggest that rather than pushing on EVs right now, India can set its own new emission standards. For now, EVs are expensive cars and bikes that only the super-rich can afford. The economics of it don’t really add up.

In addition to that, the technology behind EVs is yet to pan out. If India chooses to invest in lithium batteries, it will have to set up plants. Some people may move to supercapacitors. The technology is changing all the time and continues to be dynamic.

“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. And, if we start to use it as a fuel, then it’s also the cleanest of all,” suggests Giri.
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Hydrogen is made from natural gas, something that India’s existing infrastructure can already support. The Indian Oil Corporation has already demonstrated technology where it can blend hydrogen with compressed natural gas (CNG) — which is already being used for a large chunk of public transportation.

“Having said that, hydrogen fuel, even today is very expensive,” Giri explained but it’s something that makes more sense to invest in for the long haul given India’s position right now.

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