From industrialists to policymakers and the common man, everyone is considering electric vehicles as the panacea for spiralling fuel prices, worsening air pollution and the resultant climate catastrophe. This recommendation is buttressed with data on vehicular emission provided by activists and policymakers; and the running cost lamented by the common man – to drive home the point. But there is at least a section of experts who are not convinced about it, and it bodes well to listen to their contentions too, before signing off on a policy on the future of electric mobility.
Due to factors including cost, ease of commissioning, operation and maintenance, many countries like India have moved almost completely to thermal power plants as the primary source of energy. These plants use coal, a fossil fuel that is as polluting as petrol or diesel, if not more, which essentially means the source of emission is merely moved from millions of individual vehicles to a few dozen large-scale power plants and does little to help the larger cause of curbing pollution.
Another factor is the ethics of transferring the burden of pollution to poorer countries that have the natural resources used for making lithium-ion batteries. For instance, lithium mining has a highly destructive effect on the immediate environment. Cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries, is mainly supplied by mines in Congo; the high demand – and thus the handsome revenue – has taken a toll on the political stability of the country. Then comes the lure of viability, the main reason that is prompting customers to choose electric vehicles. Looking at it in the backdrop of the ongoing coal crisis, it is evident that the cost advantage is transient in nature, and could change depending on factors like availability of coal, national grid connectivity to ensure seamless transmission, the performance of other sources like wind energy that would determine overall demand, etc.
If climate change and ethics of pollution burden are not important enough for the hard-nosed policymakers, what about energy security? Through a combination of careful planning and opportunistic manoeuvres, aided by the ‘advantage’ of not being a democracy, China has become the world’s source for lithium-ion batteries that power EVs, mobile phones, laptops, and everything else that runs on stored power. It was reported earlier this year that the country has nearly 100 giga-factories producing these batteries as opposed to merely four in the US. Given the border hostilities transpiring between India and China, it appears ill-advised to move to EVs lock, stock, and barrel. Also, recent reports suggested how Indian firms were facing a supply crunch due to a surge in demand and also because Chinese companies favoured bigger markets like Europe and the US over India.
But a closer look at these reasons cited by sceptics would reveal that the concerns are not just about the idea of moving to electric vehicles. It’s also about battery technology that has remained stagnant ever since the advent of lithium-ion batteries a couple of decades ago. Now, at long last, there are several efforts to find alternatives. For companies like Tesla and consumer electronics behemoths, better battery technology is crucial to take the leap to the next stage of technology, which requires higher computing power.
This is where countries like India could take the lead, drawing from the recent experience of rapid development and ensuring the equitable supply of the COVID vaccines. Quite like the pandemic that threatened humanity as a whole, the twin crisis of energy and climate has pushed the world into a corner. It requires a coordinated effort from all countries and international agencies and cannot be left to the considerations of profitability of a handful of companies or even countries.