This article is part of a deep dive into Electric Vehicles in India. #EVinIndia is the first chapter of ‘Shaping Sustainability’, an exclusive series by The Better India to give our readers an in-depth understanding of how Indians are making sustainability a priority in all walks of life. Find more stories from the series, here.
In the last five years, governments, large corporations, startups and investors in India have expressed their commitment to a future marked by electric mobility. The Government of India desires electric vehicle (EV) sales penetration of 30% for private cars, 70% for commercial vehicles and 80% for two and three-wheelers by 2030.
(Image above of a consumer charging his EV courtesy Shutterstock/KAIN KAUSHIK)
So, where are we now?
As of January 2022, the total number of registered EVs in India across vehicle categories stood at 9.13 lakhs as of January 2022, according to the Vahan Portal. Going further, of the EVs sold in 2021-22, two-wheelers had the highest share with 49%, followed by three-wheelers accounting for nearly 45%. Fundamental to the growth of this sector, however, is the EV charging infrastructure network built by the government and the private sector.
Speaking to The Better India, Anant Nahata, the Managing Director and CEO of Exicom Group, which recently announced that it had completed 5,000 EV charging installations (including AC and DC chargers) across 200 cities, spoke about the growth of this network.
“As per our internal estimates, when it comes to EV charging infrastructure, India would probably have somewhere about 8,000 AC and DC Fast chargers installed in the country and approximately 6,000-7,000 chargers at home and workplaces. This is not a bad number. We could have done better, but initially, it was the classic chicken and egg problem. Infrastructure wasn’t being invested in due to lack of utilisation, and vehicle OEMs weren’t investing due to the high price of the battery and lack of charging options,” says Anant.
However, he believes that the GoI did a “great thing by breaking this problem circle”.
“Initially, PSUs like EESL, NTPC Limited and PGCIL, came out with initiatives to put charging infrastructure on the ground and even aggregate EV demand from the government to buy in volumes. That was really important—the first 1,000-2,000 chargers in India and EVs came on the road as a result. It got the whole ecosystem moving and now there are more than 20 companies ranging from startups to big energy companies investing in different value parts of the EV ecosystem, including charging infrastructure. I have no doubt that in the next three years, because of various initiatives of the government, private players, utilities, the growth of charging infrastructure will not remain scarce or a deterrent for the growth of EVs,” he says.
Besides, various states have come out with concessional power tariffs for EV charging which was a big plus. “These concessional tariffs range from Rs 5 to Rs 7 depending on the state. That has brought down the cost of charging significantly and led to the greater installation of EV charging infrastructure,” adds Anant.
But there is still some way to go before EV charging infrastructure can match the penetration of petrol pumps (more than 78,000), while there are key issues that require redressal, like the role of power distribution companies (discoms), among others.
Evolution of EV Charging Infrastructure
Maxson Lewis, the MD and CEO of Mumbai-based electric vehicle charging infrastructure company Magenta, talks about the evolution of this segment. A pioneer in this segment, Maxson recalls how when they started in 2018, people didn’t even know the full form of EV.
“Earlier, it was about raising awareness and people’s understanding of the EV sector, especially the discoms. They used to look at us as a competitor. They would ask what EV-charging is, why we’re selling electricity, etc. Remember, the Electricity Act did not allow EV charging as a business. The year 2018 (November) is when the government allowed individuals to open public electric vehicle charging stations without applying for licenses (de-licensing). The following year (2019-20) was about telling people and searching for places to set up chargers while being aware that vehicles were not yet on the road,” recalls Maxson.
In 2020-21, the challenge was standardisation. “The question was whether India will go the way of CHAdeMO, Combined Charging System (CCS)-2 or GB/T. But by 2021, we were very clear that it was all sorted. So India has followed the protocol of CCS-2 for private vehicles and GB/T for fleet operators,” he explains.
Today, Maxson believes, EV charging has become an infrastructure and a real estate game. It’s about finding the locations and putting up the chargers.
“The challenge today is the availability of real estate and electricity infrastructure. That’s the hurdle that we have started to hit now. It’s more of a bottleneck than a challenge, which slows down the speed of building charging stations. This is a challenge not only in India but globally too. But we should soon be able to solve this problem next year,” he adds.
Types of EV Charging
It is very important to understand where charging really happens.
“First, we need to acknowledge that around 70% of globally EV charging happens at homes and offices, which we call destination charging. So the first problem is to make charging available at residential societies and corporate complexes,” claims Maxson.
The second charging profile is Highway charging for casual travellers. The third charging profile is Commercial fleet charging, including three-wheeler rickshaws, fleet cars, e-buses, etc.
“If we understand the EV charging infrastructure conundrum and break it up into three problems, we can then try to solve each one,” he adds.
First off, not everyone has a dedicated parking lot. “Assuming I have a parking lot, the challenge is that the typical power load available at my home is around 5 kilowatts or a maximum of 7.5 kilowatts (kW). Our homes require load enhancement because vehicles of the future are going to require anywhere between 7kW and 22kW,” explains Maxson.
Magenta came up with a solution known as ‘community charging’, which they first set up at the Gundecha Trillium residential society in Mumbai. This is India’s first residential community charger. Now they are installing the same in other residential societies.
Next comes the challenge of providing low cost charging systems for individual parking lots as well.
Talking about public charging, particularly fast DC charging, the biggest challenge is real estate, which really burns a hole in the pockets of EV infrastructure companies. The impact is aggravated by the fact that utilisation is limited by the low number of EVs on the ground.
In public charging, another concern is power load management. These chargers range between 50kW and 60kW. But the roadside dhaba where a charger might be needed would typically have only a 7 to 15 kW load. This is an upgrade challenge that India is going to face very soon.
Fleet charging, meanwhile, is the easiest to solve, says Maxson, because utilisation is not a problem. “Here, the question is how many more chargers can one put up and have a charging session started immediately. But the challenge of load still exists. Companies like us are ready to solve the problem but require that discoms move fast in tandem,” he says.
EV Charging, Discoms and Reforms
Discoms are entities that dispense energy in the form of electricity. They are licensed authorities delivering last-mile connectivity for any location. As stated earlier, EV charging is a de-licensed activity, which means entities like Magenta can buy power from a discom and sell it only if it’s an EV through a certified EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment).
“We essentially buy power from a discom and dispense it through a charger. That’s the entire ecosystem. Now, how this is playing out is very interesting. If all goes according to plan, we will end up being one of the biggest consumers of the discom. Let’s say we put up 1000 chargers in Bengaluru. Given the amount of power sourced, we will end up being one of the biggest clients of the discom. I think all these discoms have now started to understand that,” says Maxson.
He also adds that EV batteries can store energy and can dispense energy back into the grid. “This is called vehicle to grid (V2G), where the vehicle starts to store energy and give it back to the grid. Pilot efforts in this regard are already successful in Australia and Norway,” he says.
However, Nitish Arora, Lead Consultant at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group that advises State governments on how to strengthen their EV charging infrastructure, believes that discoms need to do more for the EV revolution.
“To start off, we need to get power distribution utilities ready now, which requires the deployment of smart charging technologies, managed EV charging and getting the power distribution grid upgraded. For example, what we encountered in many states is that to get a 100 kW of power sanctioned load, I need to install an additional distribution transformer, which means a CapEx of Rs 10-11 lakh. At a time when EV sales are at a nascent stage, increasing the CapEx by another Rs 10-12 lakh makes the whole charging business unviable. This means that utilities need to get smarter in terms of how they can get the grid EV ready first by optimising the juice that is already there on the grid, which means smart charging,” says Nitish.
Going further, He also recommends the need to distribute the cost of grid upgradation among a whole range of users. Citing the example of California, he states that residential societies in India can become EV ready by applying the principles or ‘rate-based formula’ and distributing the cost of EV charger and grid upgradation to all the residents of the society.
“Nonetheless, there needs to be a long-haul reform process with discoms. Sometimes, they take three months to commission a charging site with electricity or power loads. That needs to be simplified across the country, and there needs to be a stricter deadline set by the state electricity regulatory commission that in a maximum of 15 days, you need to get the site EV ready. That’s the first thing I would rectify in the States,” says Nitish.
To become EV ready, enhancing systemic efficiency is also the need of the hour, which would require these power utilities to employ those smart charging technologies.
“There needs to be a way where we strategise how we respond to those grid conditions so that the EV to grid integration cost becomes very cheap. That’s how I build my infrastructure. Currently, what’s happening is that the power infrastructure cost stands out as the single largest component for setting up EVSE networks. And that is where I see there is a bigger or larger role power utilities need to play with EV penetration increasing. If the rate of transport electrification we are targeting will increase over time, this is going to bring structural changes in those temporal and spatial trends in electricity consumption patterns,” he says.
On the distribution side, too, there is scope for improvements. The argument in India has been that in the last 70 years, state-owned power utilities have been debt-ridden. “Discoms should now use this EV revolution as an opportunity to become financially viable by themselves becoming the charge point operator (CPO). They should not only consider themselves to be suppliers of electricity. They understand the power distribution networks better than any other player in the EV ecosystem. They have a bigger opportunity to become those charge point operators themselves. This has worked out really well in countries like the United States,” he notes.
Discoms and EV Charging: Transitioning to Renewables
There will be a transformational change for discoms going from thermal power to renewables. However, given the intermittent nature of renewables, discoms utilities need to emphasise energy storage.
“The bigger opportunity I see for discoms, and here state electricity regulatory commissions have a bigger role to play, is open access regulations. We would all agree to accelerate EV penetration in India. The charging infrastructure network needs to be distributed and accessible, which means there will be more chargers distributed across a given area. To power these charging stations through renewable energy, I should be allowed as a charge point operator to source renewable power. This requires a framework for demand aggregation. Currently, you need a standby requirement of 1 MW, which is hard to get at each station. If I operate 10 charging stations in a particular city and my total demand is over 1 MW, then I should be allowed to accumulate my demand and source power through renewable energy,” says Nitish.
This has also been recommended by the Ministry of Power in their EV charging infrastructure guideline dated 15 January 2022. Discoms also fear that they are committed to long term PPAs (power purchasing agreements), and if they allow for open access, there could be a whole range of losses they need to bear. There needs to be advocacy and sensitisation among discoms that this is not the case because they signed these PPAs a long time ago when EVs weren’t in the picture. If they haven’t factored in EV demand why would they lose money on that, he argues.
“Rather, there should be a win-win framework that state electricity regulatory commissions can design, which means if somebody sources renewable power through my network as a discom, that also counts for meeting my renewable purchase obligations (RPOs). The utility can meet those RPOs if any electricity is sourced via their network. That’s how a framework should be designed if we have to enable renewable energy-powered EV charging,” explains Nitish.
Energy storage becomes pivotal when we talk about integrating renewables into the grid. Without storage, you cannot green up your energy mix. Storage becomes the first priority. Second, in many cases, discoms are also piloting distributed renewable energy generation sources at the last mile to address storage issues. For example, Tata Power in Bihar is installing micro-grids to show how they can better integrate renewable energy into the ecosystem. There are multiple ways in which discoms can respond to this changing scenario.
“Instead of signing long-term PPAs with thermal power plants, they can sign similar agreements with renewable energy developers. Renewable energy prices have hit rock bottom but are now steadily rising because of the uncertainty caused by recent geopolitical events and rising metal prices for vehicle electrification. In the past month, lithium prices have shot up by 500%. Nickel prices have shot up 250% in the last week. This means there is a bigger opportunity for localisation here in India. We need to start working on alternative battery chemistries which are both useful for electrification, renewables and storage and invest in metals that are really abundant in India like aluminium or other solid-state batteries,” he says.
Polash Mukerjee, Lead on Air Pollution and Climate Resilience at NRDC, notes that we must also look at the second life of EV batteries for grid stabilisation and use it for energy storage.
“That’s a potential area India needs to delve into further. Another key issue is the capacity utilisation of these existing EV charging infrastructures. The EV revolution presents a big opportunity for discoms to set up charging infrastructure. The additional advantage they have here is reducing the required front-loaded capital expenditure because they already have access to sites. But as solutions by PSUs like EESL and others show, the utilisation rates for their charging stations are still very low. Last year, the utilisation rate was between 8% to 10%. In order to build the ecosystem and get more out of private players to reach the 2.9-million EV chargers mark by 2030, we need to aggregate demand,” he explains.
As per the Centre for Energy Finance, “India’s 2030 vision of e-mobility translates into 102 million EVs…102 million EVs by FY30 would need deployment of 2.9 million public chargers.”
Finding the Correct Site for Charging Stations & Maintenance
Another important facet of expanding India’s EV charging infrastructure is finding the appropriate site for chargers. Siting studies should be the foremost logical step or tool that can help city planning in terms of where to install my charging infrastructure and what type.
“We need to consider land parameters (latitude, longitude, size, parking spaces, area description and is there any area growth possible). You also need to determine the actual use case, whether in a particular area a two-wheeler is a major form factor that is being used or a three-wheeler or four-wheeler, and accordingly determine what sort of charging infrastructure you need and of which type. You also need to ascertain whether the area is clearly visible, secure, accessible without any parking charges, available 24/7, etc.,” says Nitish.
Another important consideration in finding the right site is, are there any amenities that the consumer can access nearby? With the current vehicle and charging technology available, it often takes 45 to 60 minutes to charge your vehicle. So, the charging station should be housed somewhere where consumers can spend time while their vehicle is getting charged. You also have traffic parameters to consider. Is the site a major trip origin point or destination point?
“We also ascertain tower connection parameters in terms of whether there is enough juice available in the distribution network. There are even civil parameters- underlying cables, any trees nearby, which can cause dripping issues, waterlogging issues, and many other concerns. This is important for the maintenance of EV chargers. NRDC and its partners have been working with city and state governments to develop a framework to site charging stations appropriately, taking into account all these parameters. Last month, the NITI Aayog launched a national manual on how to site charging stations for Indian cities,” he says.
“It’s great to put up infrastructure, but the bigger task is to keep it operational. There are maintenance costs. There’s an operational cost of keeping the chargers live. That’s one cost. The second is from a maintenance perspective and whether the charger has major moving parts or not. We have seen situations where a public charging station becomes a public parking lot. We put up chargers at public charging stations, but since no electric vehicles were coming there, everyone else started to park their vehicles there. But the bigger problem is vandalism. You just can’t put it up in an unguarded location,” says Maxson.
Suggestions to Governments to Improve EV Charging Infrastructure
Widespread access to residential charging is critical for accelerating e-mobility in Indian cities.
“The amended Model Building By-Laws by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) recommend that 20% of all parking spaces in new multi-unit buildings, including residential buildings, be equipped with EV charging. But it is a model bye-law and not an enforceable notification. Since 70% of EV charging is happening at home, we might as well focus on that first and make sure that the policies and guidelines are aligned to it,” says Maxson.
“How can I install an EV charging station at home? There need to be clearer guidelines in many Indian cities. Apart from Delhi, I see no other state has a clear guideline in this regard,” notes Nitish. Meanwhile, Polash notes, “There are still ongoing issues regarding where I can install EV charging stations and where I cannot. For example, in Delhi, there are a lot of areas characterised for mixed land use. Under the existing DDA building by-laws, there is no clarity on whether I can install an EV charging station or not. It’s completely a grey area.”
Also, charge point operators must never compromise on safety. Maxson believes that people in India have picked up a jugaad mode of operating chargers like employing three-pin sockets for public charging. “Sadly, this has become kind of a default charging platform, which is one of the most unsafe things to do. We cannot propagate that as public charging. Charging must have basic safety norms. One mistake and the industry could come collapsing,” he says.
Finally, there are multiple OEMs who are setting up their own charging networks. Polash emphasises the need for interoperability. “We need to ensure these charging stations can be used across the system and not restricted to a particular kind of vehicle only,” he says.
To conclude, even though the EV charging infrastructure in India has come a reasonably long way, there are still many elements that require improvement and issues that require redressal. Having said that, the future looks quite promising.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)