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Towards an electric future

If batteries are manufactured indigenously, electric mobility could curb India’s oil imports

Towards an electric future

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is right in saying that the International Solar Alliance (ISA) could replace the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as the key energy supplier in the future. However, alongside a rapid use of solar power, the world also needs to switch over to battery-driven electric vehicles to substantially replace oil. The automobile, aviation, and shipping industries continue to be big oil guzzlers. Tropical India may be well placed to build large capacities of solar power, but, it is not in so advantageous a position to easily switch over from oil- and gas-fed auto engines to batteries. The world's third largest oil importer lacks both technology platform and key raw materials to manufacture low-cost, high-energy batteries. Therefore, the focus should be on domestic manufacture using high performing technologies and easily available raw materials. India must make sure that its switchover to alternative energies does not once again become import-dependent. To give an example, India's thrust for solar power in the last three years made it import-dependent on China, Taiwan, and Malaysia for cells. Cell imports from these countries accounted for over 90 per cent of their total inbound shipments. This must change to make the switchover to new and climate-friendly energies truly meaningful.

The government recently imposed a safeguard duty of 25 per cent on solar imports from China and Malaysia for two years. It was levied on the basis of recommendations from Directorate General of Trade Remedies (DGTR). In its report, DGTR concluded that increased imports of solar PV cells into India have caused "serious injury" and "threaten to cause serious injury" to domestic producers. India's import of cells jumped from 1,275 MW in 2014-15, to 9,790 MW in 2017-18. A Parliamentary panel report said Chinese solar panel dumping had cost some 200,000 jobs in India. The country's major cells and modules manufacturers such as Mundra Solar PV, Indosolar, Jupiter Solar Power, Websol Energy Systems, and Helios Photo Voltaic sought the government's support to curb imports.

However, India's ambitious plan for a gradual conversion to electric mobility poses a much bigger challenge. Going by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant's statement, 76 per cent of automobiles in India are two-wheelers consuming 64 per cent of fuel and causing 30 per cent of pollution. The government, says Kant, will push for electrification of shared mobility — two-wheelers first and personal cars at the end. Starting with a lofty ambition to have 100 per cent electric mobility by 2030, the government has now scaled the target down to 30 per cent. The GST rate on lithium-ion batteries has been lowered to 18 per cent from 28 per cent. Automakers await the fast-charging standards that will allow global carmakers to launch their battery-powered models in India. The choice is said to be between the European Combined Charging System and Chademo. The Combined Charging System is used by Volkswagen Group, Ford Motor, Daimler AG, and General Motors in the US and Europe. Chademo is being pushed by Japanese auto giants Suzuki Motor and Toyota Motor Corp. The task of finding the new standards is now with the Department of Science and Technology. DST is expected to come out with the choice by November.

Interestingly, Alan Greenshields, chairman of Switzerland-based Innolith AG, who was in Delhi, earlier this month, to attend the 'India-ISA Partnership Renewable Energy Investors Meet & Expo,' fully endorses the government's indigenous manufacturing effort to build capacity to meet the national energy demand 'in socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable ways.' Greenshields says his company will be happy to partner with India to share the technology platform that can support low-cost, high-energy batteries. "We truly believe that Innolith's technology is of the next generation. Our technology, in the long term, has fundamental cost and performance advantages. We need the industry to move to the 'Total Cost of Ownership' aspect rather than look at just $/kWh purchase price," says Greenshields. Innolith system excels at cost-per-cycle and cost-per-total-throughput energy. Unfortunately, many in the industry do not yet think about these metrics. The central electricity authority is believed to have already noted that cost-per-cycle is much more important for many applications. "We would like to work with CEA and other expert groups on defining the appropriate use and cases for our technology and the right metrics," Greenshields offered. Conventional lithium-ion can work in power applications, but cycle life is not sufficient. The government needs to define monetisation methods which support commercial deployment of batteries. Innolith is strong on R&D and product development.

It is not in India's interests to replace its dependency on imported oil & gas with dependency on imported Chinese or Korean batteries. In fact, it won't be easy to undercut conventional Li-ion batteries made in China. It is time India makes the right choice of technology in support of its plan towards electric mobility. EnerBlue, another firm, which has recently started building battery in the US, is also keen to enter India. The company's chief strategy officer, Robert Pedraza, is eyeing the Chennai Metropolitan Transport Corporation as a potential customer. 'Current lithium-ion batteries (LiB) cannot operate in extreme temperatures,' he says. Pedraza too was recently in India to explore joint venture battery production possibility. Japanese auto major Suzuki, along with Denso and Toshiba, pooled $180 million last year to build a LiB plant in India. Taiwan-based power management firm Delta Electronics is also making plans for India. If policies work out positively, Delta hopes to roll out LiBs from India in two years. Several Indian companies, including BHEL, Sun Mobility, Hero Future Energies, and Exicom, are keen on entering the field. Battery manufacturers are basing their strategies on potential demand in India once electric vehicles and renewable energy projects take off. The choice of technology will hold the key to success.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Nantoo Banerjee

Nantoo Banerjee

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