Status check: Are there enough charging points to make EVs viable?

There are many reasons why Tata Nexon EV was the highest selling electric car last month. Compact SUVs are the flavour of the season and this one comes in a shiny blue color with a 30KW Tata engine. The model sold 525 units, 70 per cent of all passenger EVs sold in April.

The attractive design isn’t the only factor. One of the biggest bottle-necks for adoption of EVs is the charging infrastructure, and that seems to be changing for the better, according to the latest data and interviews with stakeholders.

With one-fourth the range of gasoline powered vehicles on full tank, EVs have seldom been the primary vehicles of choice. They evoke what is called “range anxiety”. A commuter can’t take them far because of limited public charging facilities; local driving too, is cumbersome because one has to plug the car every second day. Most fuel car owners get the tank filled once a week.

For the longest time, there has been a conundrum when it comes to public charging. Energy firms wouldn’t install public chargers because there aren’t enough cars and thus it would not be a profitable enterprise. Buyers, on their part, have not warmed up to EVs because there aren’t enough charging points on the road.

However, there is a positive uptick in both the sides of the equation—highlighted in a way by the response to Tata Nexon EV. Over the last two years, the charging station network has doubled in India. There is now one public charging spot for every 31 new EVs sold in FY21, according to latest data. (FY21 EV sales: 133,714)

As of March 2021, India had a total of 4,305 charging stations – pooled in by power discoms, private players as well as OEMs, according to JMK Research. Another 3,397 charging stations have been sanctioned under the second phase of Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles India (FAME II) scheme as on January, 2021.

 
The figure could shoot up to 7,000 over 18 months, according to JMK Research. “Out of this, the state-held players – EESL and REIL – would account for 50 per cent of the market share. This will be followed by some experienced and already established private players – Volttic, Tata Motors, and Fortum,” the green energy-focussed research firm said in a April 2021 report. EESL or Energy Efficiency Services Ltd is a JV of four PSUs: Power Finance Corp, NTPC, Power Grid Corp of India, and REC Ltd, while REIL or Rajasthan Electronics and Instruments Ltd is a PSU.

Industry participants say the demand and viability of charging stations – a long-time chicken-and-egg situation - is improving, given the uptick in EV sales. In 2019-20, EV sales grew 20 per cent to 155,400 units, but dived in the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic year FY21 to 133,714. However sales in the last couple of months have been the highest so far. There are many other green signals too: Covid-19 pandemic induced uptick in automobile sales; Tesla setting up an EV factory in Karnataka and a $300 million fresh investment in Ola Electric, which has some major plans.

Fragmented market

Dozens of entities – both private and public – are participants in the charging infrastructure play. EESL and REIL are players that have built significant presence from bagging majority of contracts under the FAME I. Tata power, of late, has emerged as a top player with 300 stations across the country. See chart.

“Each player is entering from a different point”, said Shree Harsha, director at Dassault System, a French multinational that supplies tech solutions to some of the biggest EV companies in the world. “The demand and structure of the charging offering also varies across commercial and passenger segments.”

Ola, for instance, wants to create its own electric two-wheeler and charging station network for commercial vehicle fleet. IOCL, which operates fuel pumps, went about setting up charging points at the same pumps (only to realise later that it was perhaps not the best place to put up charging points because of long wait times). On the other hand, Ather Energy, the biggest electric two-wheeler firm, is installing its own network of chargers.

Major firms have assumed pole position in each of the charging sub-categories, namely: public charging for CVs, public charging for PVs, commercial charging for CVs, mainly three-wheelers and home-based charging.

Company Charging network Offering Presence 
Volttic 190 AC and DC chargers for 2W, 3W, 4W, and electric buses Operating at corporate offices of Infosys, Mckinsey, Fidelity ,HP Computing, TESCO, JP Morgan, and Amazon along with having public nstallations at Indore,Mumbai, Delhi, and Gurugram.
Charge Zone 210 Fast DC Chargers for Electric busses Ashok Leyland, EEE-Taxi, Shuttl, SmartE, BluSmart, Bajaj Auto
Fortum Charge & Drive 100 Public charging specifically for e-4W Operates in 7 Indian cities
REIL 800 Public Charging Infrastructure All major metro and non-metro cities
EESL 1200 Public and Captive Charging NDMC Delhi, CMRL Chennai, Maha Metro Nagpur, Noida Authority, SDMC Delhi, NKDA Kolkata
EVI Technologies 215 AC and DC chargers for 3W, battery swapping Pan-India

“We are targeting malls, tech-parks, society complexes and points along national highways to install out charging stations,” said Akshit Bansal, co-founder of Statiq, an electric charging network. “The idea is to put chargers where people have something to do for an hour or so when the vehicle gets charged,” he said. 

A similar model has been adopted by Ather for its Ather Grid charging network. A representative from the Hero-backed company said its network now totalled 128 charging points (highest density in Bengaluru at 33), with an aim to cross 300 by December. Each Ather also comes with a home charger which can be plugged into a wall socket. This coupled with a feature that shows the distance and route to the nearest charging station on the scooter’s dashboard does make owning the scooter a comfortable experience.

The other major segment is electric three-wheelers which are used for commercial operations. Here, a number of companies, including Noida-based Volttic, have created large assets where EVs are charged overnight. Experts say that EV adoption is being led by the electric three-wheeler commercial segment which has seen major demand from last-mile players like Big Basket, Amazon, Flipkart and so on.

“The electrification in India will certainly be led by light electric vehicles (2Ws and 3Ws), at least, in the medium term,” said an in-depth report on charging infrastructure by Avendus, an investment bank, from July 2020.

“In case of 3W, the e-rick segment has grown rapidly and has even started to shift to Li-ion batteries. E-autos are expected to be launched soon. 4W market was largely being driven by Mahindra and Tata Motors with their fleet targeted variants. In 2019, Hyundai, MG Motors and Tata Motors came up with new EV models aimed at the retail segment. In CVs, the bus segment is seeing most action, mainly on account of public sector demand.”

Cost savings is the single biggest selling point of EVs. Taking the example of Tata Nexon, a representative of Statiq explained that the 30KW battery of the SUV takes all but Rs 180 to charge and offers a range of 250 km. Purely on the basis of cost-per-km, Nexon is much cheaper than even CNG-powered engines which run at roughly Rs 2.5 per km.

The hurdle then is the charging time. There are two standards that exist in the industry: AC charging and DC charging. DC charging is faster, but more expensive and degrades the battery over long use. That is why AC charging is more commonplace and most home chargers and those at offices are on AC output. But the difference in times is stark, and so is the cost difference. The same Tata Nexon will take 1 hour to fully charge on DC current, and 8-10 hours on AC current; A standard AC charger costs Rs 60,000-70,000, while an AC charger (one unit) can cost upwards of Rs 10,00,000, according to the Statiq executive.

While the charging time conundrum will likely be a pain point in the passenger four-wheeler segment, a bunch of solutions have come up in the commercial two- and three-wheeler side. Much work is being done to figure out the feasibility of battery-swapping solution. Charge Zone, a Vadodara-based start-up which offers DC chargers for electric busses, has recently acquired the battery swapping assets from Ola Electric.

Akshay Singhal, founder of nanotechnology firm Log9 disputes the long-term viability of battery swapping. “Lot of small pilots have happened but there are some inherent operational issues. The batteries required are higher than the number of vehicles, which results in inventory lying vacant. Secondly, nobody is sure that the swapped battery will offer the same range – which is something crucial when it comes to commercial operations.”

Here, Singhal pitches Log9’s ‘Rapid Charging Battery Packs’, made of proprietary chemistry, that can charge in 15 minutes and offer a true range of 60-80 km for three-wheeler EVs. Log9, he says, signed contracts for pilots with Amazon, Vogo, Shadowfax, Delhivery, among others.

Shashidhar KJ of ORF, a think tank, concurred that the cost dynamics and standards will first be figured out for two- and three-wheelers. “It comes as no surprise that many of the companies who have applied for the FAME-II scheme are e2Ws and e3Ws. Marquee two-wheeler manufacturers in India like Bajaj, TVS, Hero have released their e2W products in the market and now are competing with newer companies like Ather, ReVolt, Okinawa, and Ampere who have a head start against the incumbents,” said Shashidhar.

Massive government push

India is riding high on the support of government schemes FAME I and FAME II, and the interest shown by the private players. Under FAME II, which has an outlay of Rs 10,000 crore, 3,397 charging stations were sanctioned of which 2,636 were approved as of 2020. They cover 62 cities in India, the highest being in Maharashtra, followed by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Separately, in September 2020, the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises invited tenders for 1,500 additional charging stations to be set up along the 25 national highways. This is besides the tax incentives accorded to manufacturers and buyers of EVs.

Likewise, a bunch of policy tweaks have helped private players jump into the business. The most significant step has been to treat EV charging as a “service”, allowing anyone to set up and operate an EV charging station without requiring a license. In the Union Budget announced in July 2019, GST rate on EV charger/charging stations was reduced from 18 per cent to 5 per cent.

“The number of public charging stations in India is very low, only a few hundred. Despite the fact that the FAME-II policy gives importance to encourage charging stations, the government and automakers must give serious consideration to invest in battery swapping technology. Charging times for EVs take several hours for a full charge,” said Shashidhar of ORF.

Harsha of Dassault System said better incentives for EV buyers can be planned. “In some countries in Europe, if you give in your car for an electric car, you get a substantial monetary discount on the cost. Perhaps that can be tried here. Also, the government should mandate corporate fleets to use EVs in return for incentives.”


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