by Pawan Mulukutla
Seizing the momentum for the rollout of electric vehicles (EV) in the country, the center announced its intention to draft a battery replacement policy in February to further accelerate the rollout of clean vehicles. Presenting the Union budget for 2022-23, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman encouraged private actors to develop sustainable and innovative business models for “Battery or Energy as a Service”.
The initial hurdles faced by the EV sector have been removed through programs and policies such as Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME) and several other state government initiatives. These have helped the EV sector continue to grow, despite the global lockdown exerting brakes across industries. With encouraging signs, India has pledged to ensure 30% of vehicle sales are electric by the end of the decade.
Any conversation about electric vehicles quickly leads to technological and logistical hurdles in reactivating their battery packs. This can be done in two ways: by setting up charging points in private and public spaces and by installing battery changing cabins. While the former requires more land and higher capacity loading equipment, the latter is not. The convenience of changing the battery is similar to that of adding fuel, as the battery in the electric vehicle can be swapped out for a fully charged battery as quickly as refueling a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.
Charging stations are often equipped with DC fast chargers to minimize consumer waiting time. This has a few downsides. Fast charging shortens battery charge cycles, especially in an uncontrolled environment subject to the vagaries of Indian weather conditions. They also need more space, a shortage in urban areas, to accommodate vehicles while charging. Even the fastest chargers need at least half an hour for scooters. Another disadvantage of fast charging stations is their high power requirement, which puts a strain on the power grid. Increasing substation capacity and density is a capital-intensive process. In addition, due to the voltage fluctuations that EV charging can cause, high-power charging stations can destabilize comparatively low-power residential networks, making their deployment less than ideal for residential areas.
On the other hand, charging points could be set up more cheaply if land costs are excluded. Battery changing stations can also stack several batteries on top of each other, which further reduces the space requirement. This means that changing stations can also be set up inside petrol stations.
While battery swapping stations take up less space, they have to pay the price of having more batteries than on-road electric vehicles to ensure constant availability. These are costs that fleet operators in the commercial segment have to bear. Shortly after the Union budget asked private actors to invest in battery replacement, several business leaders offered their support. Some also asked for subsidies for “floating” batteries, or additional batteries needed for battery swap logistics, which the current FAME program does not support. For their part, private actors need to come together and ensure battery and electric vehicle compatibility to ensure that the infrastructure being built is used to its full potential.
Operators also prefer to invest in battery swapping stations rather than fast charging stations, as the former offer more control over maintaining electricity demand and supply. For example, local disco agencies promote a “time-of-day” (ToD) tariff regime according to the service demand profile for the disco’s service area. ToD also helps spread demand throughout the day, keeping it below the capacity of the substation providing the power. On the other hand, fast charging requires expensive infrastructure and high-capacity substations to meet the energy demand. Battery swapping also allows operators to charge batteries separately from the swap station. This gives them more flexibility when setting up exchange stations in an urban area.
In order for battery swapping stations to be financially viable, the standardization of battery and terminal points plays an essential role. However, as competition intensifies to capture the emerging market at the earliest, vehicle manufacturers are investing a significant portion of their resources into researching and developing more sophisticated batteries.
The Center has already taken the first steps towards this ultimate goal. In August 2020, the Union Department for Roads and Motorways (MORTH) allowed the sale of electric vehicles without pre-assembled batteries. This drastically reduces the price of the vehicle (batteries can account for up to 50% of the cost of an electric vehicle) and gives consumers the freedom to lease batteries without having to worry about long-term maintenance and associated costs. It also allows consumers to use battery swapping stations and the ability to disconnect batteries to charge at home. While a controlled charging environment helps extend battery life, consumers also benefit from keeping pace with rapidly evolving battery technologies. Today, most electric vehicles are equipped with lithium-ion batteries, but they are expected to be replaced by lithium-graphene, which has a higher capacity with a smaller size.
Battery swap stations are a welcome convenience for people who don’t have access to charging points at their place of residence or work. Also for commercial operators – particularly those making last mile deliveries as battery swapping allows for minimal downtime for their vehicles. Having a fully charged battery in the vehicle in two to five minutes is a major benefit of changing the battery.
Around the world, particularly in the Global North, battery charging points have gained significant traction compared to swap stations. This is mainly because electric vehicles in western countries are either cars for personal use or buses for commercial use. Swapping is not a convenient option for heavier vehicles as it requires heavy lifting of larger batteries. However, the situation in India is very different – almost 70% of the vehicles on the roads are two-wheelers. The commercial operation of two-wheelers has also increased significantly, especially since the pandemic-related lockdowns. And batteries, which are found in electric two-wheelers, can be easily replaced manually due to their low weight. Since no automated battery swapping infrastructure is required to transport two-wheeler batteries, there is significant potential for battery swapping in this segment.
Analysis by WRI India shows that the total cost of ownership of electric two-wheelers for commercial operators within one year of use without using FAME subsidies is comparable to that of petrol bikes. Electric two-wheeler manufacturers, operators and aggregators have recognized the market and have already begun to work with e-commerce, cloud kitchens and grocery stores to reduce the cost of hyper-local delivery. In addition, a vehicle manufacturer recently announced its commitment to battery swapping stations for its own use. Given the segment’s high usage and lack of time to charge the batteries, a dense battery swap network in urban areas would significantly accelerate the EV sector.
Disclaimer: Pawan Mulukutla is Director of Energy Technology and Green Mobility at World Resources Institute India. The views expressed are personal.
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