As we migrate to electric buses, hybrid ones represent an intermediate phase

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The Route 55 in Gothenburg, Sweden (pictured). It is a dedicated line for hybrid and full electric buses. Operational since June 2015, the 10 electrified buses have carried 1.5 million passengers. Can we replicate this success story in India?

India spends $100 billion annually on the import of fossil fuels. The transportation sector (including railways) accounts for 70% of diesel consumption—and 40% of diesel consumption can be attributed to commercial vehicles. It is easy to understand India’s drive to join countries like Sweden, Germany, France and Norway to eliminate vehicles powered by fossil fuel in foreseeable future. We, at Volvo Buses, have adopted a proactive strategy towards green fuels. Since 2008, we have sold more than 3,500 hybrids and electric buses globally. The India journey began with the delivery of two hybrid buses to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation—these have performed to expectations, delivering 35% reduction in fuel consumption and emissions, without the need for investment in incremental infrastructure. The government has been supportive in releasing considerable subsidy under FAME scheme. It is welcome news that as the second phase is being formulated, the first phase of FAME has been extended to March 31, 2018.

Hybrid buses represent the most optimal intermediate phase as we migrate towards full electric vehicles. One needs to emphasise on the word ‘gradual’. The introduction of full electric buses must be seen as a turnkey project that involves policy-makers, manufacturers, operators, infrastructure providers, financiers, charging systems specialists, utilities and academia, among others. A case in point is Route 55 in Gothenburg, Sweden. As many as 15 stakeholders have come together to set up a dedicated line for hybrid and full electric buses. Operational since June 2015, the 10 electrified buses have carried more than 1.5 million passengers.

What would it take to replicate this success story in India?

In a nutshell, we require (1) economies of scale, and (2) standardisation of technology and interoperability. Economies of scale: Any capital-intensive venture has to grapple with the chicken and egg story. Will assured demand result in lowering of costs or is it the other way round? To solve this puzzle, we must adopt the ‘and’ approach. Economies of scale can be realised if demand and supply can be simultaneously triggered. Across important cities, we need green zones that mandate assured procurement and deployment of electrified buses. Supporting infrastructure in the shape of dedicated corridors, unhindered access to electricity and charging infrastructure is called for. This green public transport ecosystem needs to be accorded infrastructure status so that it may receive priority funding.

Congestion and entry taxes on personal vehicles can complement. Correspondingly, users must be incentivised to opt for greener buses. Against this backdrop, manufacturers, battery makers, charging system providers can embark on localisation. Buses, battery management, set-up and access to charging stations as well as finance may be offered as a bundled offering to customers. Such an approach will prevent electric vehicles from being overly dependent on subsidies.

Standardisation of technology and interoperability: The promotion of common open standards, data interoperability and efficient data exchange is closely correlated with promoting sustainability and realisation of economies of scale. Standardisation needs to happen in areas of battery technology, charging infrastructure, vehicle propulsion technologies. Specific protocols need to be in place to ensure high standards of performance, safety, reliability and emission benefits. For electric vehicle propulsion, we have a many battery technology options such as lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminium, lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt, lithium-manganese-spinel, silver-zinc batteries, metal-air batteries, etc. Each of these battery types has trade-offs in terms of safety, life, cost, performance, power, energy and availability. For instance, lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries are safer than lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminium batteries, but the reverse is true for their respective lifetimes. Each of these technologies will evolve. Hence, standardisation must be undertaken to account for current and future applications.

Standardisation of charging infrastructure is one of the most challenging aspects of a budding electro-mobility programme. A number of country-specific AC and DC fast-charging systems are in existence. These systems have issues with interoperability, mainly in terms of standard connectors and voltage compatibility. We have been championing OPPCharge, which is a fast DC charging system developed as an open industry standard in partnership with European electric bus makers, as well as charging solution providers ABB and Siemens. The primary objective is to ensure open interface for charging infrastructure that will enable buses from various suppliers and allow for interoperability in terms of charging. The system is fully automated and Wi-Fi communication enables buses to connect with chargers precisely and safely. OppCharge is flexible and versatile—with charging rails positioned over the front axle, it can also be used to charge electric double-decker buses and trucks. Electro-mobility must be a part of holistic urban planning and multi-modal transport framework. The objective is to offer green public transport solutions without compromise on flexibility and reliability so that citizens have a desirable alternative to personal modes of transport.

Different approaches to electro-mobility call for correspondingly varied infrastructure. For instance, an overnight-charged electric bus will require assured power supply at night when the load on the power grid is low. Such a bus must also carry larger batteries to account for extended charging intervals. This scenario is reversed for electric vehicles that rely on fast opportunity charging. Batteries are smaller and thus more passengers can be carried. In this case, the imperative is that the charging infrastructure at bus stops and depots must be flexible and extensive. Buses depending on battery swaps do not have to worry about charging, but battery size and, by implication, passenger carrying capacity will depend on access to battery swap stations. Irrespective of which electric vehicle technology a city opts for, there must be a system to change old batteries and dispose those that have reached the end of life. Given the complex considerations, a city must decide clearly which technology approach is best suited to its needs.

Finally, clean energy is thus far the missing block in the electro-mobility Lego game. Coal-based thermal energy powering electric vehicles is a paradox. But this situation is poised to change for good. The MNRE targets to quadruple renewable energy generation—from 43GW in 2016 to 173GW in 2022. The electro-mobility journey is a marathon at the moment. We need to be prepared for the sprint.

VRV Sriprasad
The author is MD, Volvo Buses, South Asia


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