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24 Nov, 2023 14:42

The green scam: How electric vehicles harm the environment that they’re supposed to save

In 2032, India will need a billion tonnes of coal, partly to charge EVs in urban areas via power generated by thermal plants
The green scam: How electric vehicles harm the environment that they’re supposed to save

Five Indian cities, including the capital, New Delhi, consistently rank in the world's top ten worst air-polluted cities. Vehicular emissions are significant contributors; Delhi alone has around four million cars – no wonder the government of India is promoting electric vehicles (EVs) on a large scale. While India's target is a 30% market share of EVs by 2030, the share is currently only 1.1%. Moreover, concerns exist about whether EVs are a green option if pollution is transferred from the cities to the countryside.

Around 27.4 million EVs were running on Indian roads as of July 2023, according to the 'Vahan4' portal of the Ministry of Road, Transport, and Highways. To achieve its goal of net zero by 2070 to cut down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, India is expanding its EV market. The hope in New Delhi, for example, is that a rise in the number of green-number plate vehicles will herald a day when its air will become breathable again. 

However, India's EVs depend on just the 8,738 Public Charging Stations (PCS) that are operational as of June 2023, as per the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE), Ministry of Power data. The number of PCS needs to increase to a minimum of 1.32 million, states the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on 'Charging Infrastructure for Electric Vehicles,' to support the 30% market share target. 

But will EVs really be emission-free?

For an EV to achieve maximum environmental benefit, the electricity used for charging must be generated from green or renewable sources. 

However, much of India's electricity is still dependent on coal-based thermal power plants, and the government is on a spree to auction more mines and make non-operational mines functional again. India's total thermal installed capacity is 238.1 Gigawatts, and over 48.67% of thermal power (around 116 GW) is obtained from coal, and electricity demand is increasing by 4.7% annually. As per the National Electricity Plan (2022-32), the projected peak electricity demand for 2026-27 will be 277.2 GW, and for 2031-32, it will be 366.4 GW. 

Despite efforts to generate electricity from renewable sources, according to NEP 2022-23, much of India's electricity will still be derived from thermal plants running on coal by the early 2030s. The share of coal-based capacity in the total installed capacity for the year 2026-27 is likely to be 38.57% and 28.83% for the year 2031-32, which will be around 107 GW and 106 GW respectively, by 2026-27 and 2031-32 – little difference from the present scenario. 

"All projections including those of IEA (International Energy Agency), anticipate that coal-based generation is likely to peak around the early 2030s following which the generation will fall and the generation from non-fossil-based sources will increase," Swati D'Souza, an independent energy expert and former energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis told RT.

The 'Transitioning India's Road Transport Sector: Realising Climate and Air Quality Benefits' report by the IEA, in collaboration with NITI Aayog, says that the transport sector contributes to 12% of the total GHG emissions in India. But as India seeks to satisfy the mobility needs of its growing, urbanizing, and rapidly developing population, energy demand and CO₂ emissions from the sector could double by 2050.

A billion tonnes within a decade

NEP projections indicate a substantial demand for coal, with an estimated 831.5 million tonnes in 2026-27 and 1018.2 million tonnes in 2031-32. Power plants relying on coal will likely import approximately 40 million tonnes to meet the growing demand.

But, V K Shrivastava, a former advisor for petroleum refineries, petrochemicals, and energy at BEE, told RT that the central government is launching several schemes and incentives to encourage the use of green energy for charging stations, which would go a long way in making EVs emissions-free, even indirectly. 

He emphasized open access to renewable energy, a way of procuring green energy from renewable sources through the power grid; consumers choose their preferred source and pay only for what they consume without owning or operating a generation plant.

"The open access route 2022 is a noteworthy incentive for power distribution companies (DISCOMS) as it provides a 20% rebate on electricity prices when they provide green power to charging points in public spaces during the daytime. Additionally, the Open Access Transaction limit has been reduced from one MW to 100 kW to enable small consumers to purchase renewable power through open access," he says. 

Will EVs just offset GHG emissions from urban to rural India?

Concerns regarding the rise in rural pollution lead to the question of whether the adoption of EVs will offset urban pollution in rural areas as the demand for coal-based electricity increases.

Dr. Jayanarayanan Kuttippurath, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology - Kharagpur (IIT-K), told RT that agricultural waste-burning, road transport, thermal power plants, refineries, and the steel industry contribute about 45% to the total nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions in rural India. In contrast, thermal power plants are a significant source of CO₂ emissions. 

"NO₂ pollution has been increasing in rural areas for the last 20 years," says Kuttippurath, the author of 'Air quality trends in rural India: analysis of NO2 pollution using satellite measurements'. "It is also important to note that while the adoption of EVs might lead to reduced CO₂ emissions in metropolitan areas, this reduction may be counterbalanced by an increase in the mining activities or emissions from thermal power plants."

A report' Decarbonising Transport: What Does It Mean for India?' released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in March 2023, states that according to the Fuel Institute, a think tank in Europe, 73% of the emissions from Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) vehicles are released due to vehicle operations while for EVs, 72% of the emissions originate from the fuel burnt to produce electricity which charges the EV battery. 

In December 2022, the CO2 baseline database for the Indian power sector, released by the Central Electricity Authority, showed that around 0.968 metric tons of CO₂ emissions are released for the generation of one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity by thermal power plants running on fossil fuels in India, which are majorly located in rural areas of the country.

Optimism on renewables

But D'Souza is hopeful that with the rise in renewable energy, India may not see a surge in coal-based power generation beyond what has already been planned. 

"I'm not sure about the potential increase because a large many coal mines are actually shutting down in this decade, so we may not see a surge in coal-based power generation, and pollution in rural areas can be mitigated. But a lot needs to be done to mitigate existing pollution," she says. 

Randheer Singh, ex-director of NITI Aayog and currently the CEO of ForeSee Advisors, echoes D'Souza's views. He told RT that the Power Ministry has taken several steps for grid modernization while the capacity of renewable power generation has increased multifold in the last five years. 

"With the introduction of the hydrogen mission and the green energy obligation, many emission factors are countered. However, more needs to be done, including introducing stringent emission standards and rural electrification through renewables," Singh told RT. 

Another problem is the load-shedding in most cities and electrified villages. As per NEP September 2022, the peak power deficit in India during 2021-22 was just 1.2 %, but an increase in demand for electricity for charging stations and the consequential deficit in supply might become bigger problems. 

"If we look at projections, by 2030 we can see the share of EVs which are likely to increase are mostly two and three-wheelers which can be charged at home. The PCS comes into play when we think of four-wheeler electric vehicles. So whatever anticipated surge in electricity demand around that time has been taken into account and will not lead to a power deficit," adds D'Souza. 

Environmental impact of Lithium mining in India

In 2021, the Ministry of Heavy Industries launched the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme, with an allocated budget of INR 259,380 million ($3.1 billion) for the Automobile and Auto component industry, to encourage and enhance the domestic manufacturing of Advanced Automotive Technology products including EVs and their components. 

However, 70% of India's lithium-ion cell requirements for EVs are imported from China and Hong Kong, a roadblock in delivering domestically- manufactured, cost-efficient EVs. 

In February 2023, lithium deposits were discovered in Jammu & Kashmir. Initial estimates by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) suggest a reserve of 5.9 billion tonnes of lithium, positioning India as a potential lithium producer. It may reduce its dependence on other countries for EV batteries.

The central government plans to auction the newly discovered mining blocks by December. However, the mining process will be complex and resource-intensive as the J&K blocks are in the form of hard rocks, unlike the brine found in South America, which will need more water and electricity. Additionally, mining in the region's fragile ecosystem will have a major environmental impact on its biodiversity and natural resources. 

D'Souza says that in India, though there are laws against environmental pollution from mining activities, they face challenges in implementation, and there is a growing concern about the potential weakening of these laws, as observed in the case of the Environment Protection Act this year. 

"The development and production from lithium mines will take at least ten years, so the government has time to reinforce environmental protection laws associated with mining activities to address the environmental challenges posed by lithium extraction in J&K," she says. 

Shrivastav opines that while the mining of lithium will have an impact on the ecosystem, it will be far less than that of coal mines. The recycling of batteries, now a global trend, might provide respite.  

"The lifespan of an EV battery, about 8-9 years, extends to 20 years through reuse. After reaching a charging capacity of less than 40%, these batteries, deemed unfit for EVs, remain suitable for powering communication towers and instrumentation circuits," he says.

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