Prem Shankar Jha

Why India’s Electric Car Vision May Be Leading Up a Blind Alley

The Indian government seems to have fallen for the Big Business’ agenda of using electric cars even as climate change is accelerating.

Everyone’s suddenly going electric, so India is doing it too. In the past six months, Norway, Germany, Britain, France and China have announced their intention to end the use of fossil fuels in cars by 2040 at the latest. Germany aims to do it as early as 2025.

Although several of these governments have hedged their statements saying that they will switch to electric cars or alternate fuels, everyone knows that, with the possible exception of China, which already has a large coal-based methanol programme running, they are talking about electric cars. So to no one’s surprise, the Indian government has also hastened to fall in line.

In May this year, NITI Aayog, India’s revamped Planning Commission, electrified the Indian elite by announcing that India would aim at replacing its entire passenger vehicle fleet with electric cars by 2040. “India can save 64% of anticipated passenger road-based mobility-related energy demand and 37% of carbon emissions in 2030 by pursuing a shared, electric, and connected mobility future,” it announced. “This would result in a reduction of 156 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) in diesel and petrol consumption for that year.” In the same month, Piyush Goyal, the-then minister of power, said that not a single petrol or diesel passenger vehicle should be sold in India from that year onwards.

On September 7, Amitabh Kant, chief executive of NITI Aayog, told the annual meeting of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), an industry lobby, that India would have 30.81 million electric cars on the road by 2030. None of those present could tell how he had been able to arrive at the second place decimal, to within 10,000 cars of what would happen 13 years hence.

The very next day, the newly appointed minister for transport somewhat incautiously told the assembled automakers that they would be “bulldozed” into switching to electric and alternate fuel vehicles if they did not do so voluntarily.

Automobile manufacturers are predictably incensed – and the Modi government’s electric car dream is only the latest development in a long-series of general industry policy flip-flops.

Not well thought out

Was it well thought out? Did any analysis of costs and returns precede this sudden announcement? A look at the draft energy policy for 2040, which was released in June, shows that there was none. For the plan, which estimates that India’s total energy consumption will treble by 2040, predicts that in an “ambitious energy-saving scenario,” the share of fossil fuels will only come down from 81% in 2012 to 78% in 2040. Transport will account for 25% of this.

Only 16% of the oil and 5% of the gas that the “business as usual” scenario would have required will have been saved, mainly through increases in fuel efficiency. Quite obviously, at the time when the policy was being finalised, electric cars had not yet entered the government’s dreams.

What none of the governments that have made this commitment have thought about is its feasibility. The first question any transport minister should have raised was, “Is it feasible?”. One small question would have shown that it is not. The batteries that supply power to electric cars use nickel, cobalt, aluminium, graphite and lithium. All these are rare earths, whose availability in the earth’s crust is far smaller than that of coal and oil.

This poses two problems. First, will there be enough to power the more than two billion cars that will be on the road in 2040, not to mention the billions upon billions of electric bicycles and scooters? Second, will enough new reserves of these be found to offset the amount being mined every year? If the discovery of new reserves falls short of the annual increase in consumption, it will immediately trigger speculation on their future prices in commodity markets, which will push their prices into the stratosphere.

How sensitive these prices are can be judged from the fact that the fall in price of lithium reversed itself sharply at the end of 2015, when the major automakers committed themselves to making electric cars. By mid-2017, they had risen by 50% over the 2015 price.

Wishful thinking

The propagandists for the electric car argue that since lithium accounts for no more than 2% by weight of the most advanced of today’s car batteries, production will be able to keep up with demand and iron out short term price fluctuations. But this is wishful thinking.

The lithium-ion battery that powers the latest Tesla weighs 540 kg and contains close to ten kg of lithium. If the world’s governments wish to wean the world off fossil fuels, they will have to wean two billion conventional passenger cars off fossil fuels. This will require close to 20 million tonnes of lithium. If the number of passenger cars grows by 2% a year and batteries last an average of eight years (the current warranty period on the Tesla), the annual demand for lithium will be in the neighbourhood of 580,000 tonnes.

Even that will reduce the consumption of fossil fuels by somewhere around half, for it does not take into account the consumption of the road haulage industry or the billions of two-wheelers that also consume gasoline today. Against this the entire global production of lithium was 160,000 tonnes in 2015. Since it is rising at 8.8%, it is expected to reach 239,000 tonnes by 2021, according to Macquarie Research. At that rate, it will cross a million tonnes a year before 2040. Can the increase be sustained? The short answer: No. The total amount of lithium in the earth’s crust is an estimated 13.1 million tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey.

Led by the nose

Why then are governments tumbling over each other to announce plans to stop the production of cars that run on petrol or diesel within the next two decades? The answer is that they are being led by the nose by the global automobile industry. As of now, Volvo, Toyota, BMW, Daimler-Benz, General Motors, Chrysler-Fiat, Renault, Honda, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Volkswagen and Tata have announced plans to make electric cars. They have done this because they know even if their governments do not, there simply isn’t enough rare earths and metals in the earth’s crust to permit a complete shift out of petrol and diesel. So their massive investments in the auto industry will remain safe while they exploit the consumers’ growing fear of climate change to make a fast buck.

Electric cars are therefore a blind alley up which the giant oligopolies that dominate the market economy are taking the world. It is not the first one, for wind and solar photovoltaic power are also in no position to replace even a small part of the electricity that the world consumes. Had there genuinely been no alternative to oil-based petrol and diesel, the mad dash to electric cars would have been excusable. But the technology for converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen, obtained from biomass, into any olefin or transport fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis has been known for a hundred years and was first used to convert urban solid waste into methanol commercially in the US in 1922.

Today, it can do this with any kind of biomass in the world. Thus the determination of big businesses to lead the world up the blind alley of electric cars at a time when climate change is very obviously accelerating is utterly inexcusable. For the Indian government to fall for it is just plain dumb.

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