Report card: How charged up are electric buses in Indian cities?

In June, the government called for proposals from state transport departments for deployment of 5,000 electric buses, to be supported under the FAME-II scheme; but how close are our cities to realising that vision?

The slew of announcements by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget speech on incentives for electric vehicle manufacturing and adoption in India marked the most recent thrust of the Centre on clean mobility and alternative energy in transport. Earlier in June, the government had called for proposals from state transport departments for the deployment of 5,000 electric buses under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric vehicles (FAME-II) scheme. 

For the first time, the Centre  has issued a large tender for such buses. Selected cities will be offered 40 per cent on the costs. The Department of Heavy Industries has also spelt out strict timelines for electrification of public and shared transportation. The states would have to give complete delivery of the e-buses in 12 months in order to avail the subsidies. 

The government’s push for electric buses is in sync with its larger vision of curbing dependence on fossil fuels and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But how far have our cities actually progressed on the ground, in terms of operationalising electric buses on roads?

First movers

The first successful electric bus (e-bus) model for public transport in India is, surprisingly, on the steep and scenic Manali-Rohtang route. Though operable only during the summer months when the snow clears, the Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) had 50 more running in Simlalaunched the country’s first commercial e-bus operation on September 1, 2017. 

Rohtang, at a height of 13,050 feet, is a Ladakhi Bhoti word that translates as “pile of corpses”. But nine electric buses, with four more to be added soon, have been safely transporting 25 passengers each trip for the past two years. “Himachal took the lead in starting electric bus service,” said HRTC’s chief general manager H K Gupta. .

But only after a serious nudge by the High Court in 2014, acting on a National Green Tribunal (NGT) report. As Amit Bhatt, Director of Integrated Urban Transport, World Resources Institute (WRI), explained, the NGT found that heavy pollution, overcrowding, tourism and commercialisation was affecting the delicate environment of the area. The Parbati Glacier in nearby Kulu Valley was receding at an alarming rate of 52 metres per year. 

The High Court ordered that all diesel buses should be converted to CNG or electric buses. It then took the state government two years to decide it would go for electric buses. “We have three projects,” said Gupta. “While the Rohtang-Manali route is seasonal, we have e-buses running in Manali and have 11 buses in Simla.” The state expects to have 50 more running in Shimla starting this year, at a cost of Rs 76.96 lakh per bus”. 

Dharamsala Smart City and Mandi are also expected to purchase e-buses. “Their lithium manganese-oxide battery are safe and can be charged in half an hour,” Gupta added.

E-buses across India

Guwahati: The Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC) has announced that it will deploy 15 electric buses in Guwahati under the FAME scheme, with the first one plying on the Kamakhya temple route. The plan was to make all the buses emission free and operational by July-end. 

Bengaluru: In Karnataka, N A Haris, Chairman of the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), talked of a plan to finalise the purchase of 300 buses after a special Board meeting originally planned for June, although it looks as it might get postponed.

“Electric buses are the future, but a lot has to happen,” he said. “We have to finalise our plans, we need to put things in place. But we need the support of the government for this. Without that, we cannot move on”.. The central government has to bring in some law, regulation, subsidy, support. The state government too has to support us. “If government support is there, I can do it in two months,” he claimed. 

Haris also pointed out that the bus service is the lifeline of the city; so as Chairman, he is doing his best to improve things for everybody, including the public and the transport authorities. The main obstacles that he envisages relate to decision on the business model and the costs. He is asking all companies to pitch in, but one of them has asked for a price per kilometre.“That is not acceptable to us. The corporations will run at a loss in such a scenario, but the operators will make money.”

Kochi: The Kerala Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC)  deployed 10 electric buses in November 2018, for Sabarimala pilgrims with a target of transporting 15,000 pilgrims from Nilackal to Pampa every four hours during the pilgrimage seasons. The corporation is also conducting trial runs between Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram, to test the reliability, passenger comfort and commercial viability of these 9-metre long, air-conditioned, low floor buses with a capacity of 32+1 seats. 

Tenders have been invited for 500 such eBuzz K7 zero emission and noiseless electric buses in Ernakulam this year. The aim is to preserve the ecological health of ‘God’s own country’, with the state’s 2019-2020 budget announcing a procurement target of 10 lakh e-buses to convert completely to electric buses by 2022.

Delhi: Delhi too has ambitious plans to go electric, with a target of 25 per cent share of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) by 2024. Though Amit Bhatt described the AAP government’s pre-feasibility plan of having 1000 e-buses for Delhi as “only of symbolic value,” he added that “before the next elections, definitely more e-buses will be plying in Delhi, which would also help other states increase their e-bus fleet.”

Delhi had started a three-month trial run for a 33-seat, low-floor e-bus in November 2018 and will be adding more such buses in the current year. In an interview to CitizenMatters, the Vice Chairperson of the Delhi Dialogue and Development Commission (DDC), Jasmine Shah, explained that unlike other cities, which had just rushed into procuring e-buses to avail the subsidies, the Delhi government took almost eight months for the “entire planning, techno-feasibility assessment, figure out which depots are ready, map out each and every route and the mileage in each, map out the intermediate charging points needed for that and so on…Only after this was done did we go for tendering.” He added that in another six months or so, the first e-buses would start hitting the roads.

Other cities, including Chandigarh, Lucknow, Mumbai, Dehradun, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Rajkot have also seen trial runs and initial deployment. Mumbai’s BEST is buying six Goldstone-BYD buses which use Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries that are said to offer longer life and better power density. However, there are just a few e-bus routes in most of these cities, said Amit Bhatt, inspite of 390 buses being sanctioned across 11 cities, according to a WRI report.

Leading players

The leading e-bus player in India is China’s BYD Auto Industry Co. Ltd, which has a tie up with Goldstone Infratech Ltd, which assembles these buses in India. Though Indian companies like Mahindra do plan to have their own products on the road soon, it is Olectra-BYD that is getting the orders. 

Delhi, however, is using buses manufactured by PMI Electro Mobility Solutions which has a tie up with Chinese company Foton. Its competitor, also on trial in Delhi, is  JBM Solaris Electric Vehicles Ltd  powered by “fast-charging lithium batteries”. 

What’s stopping us from upscaling? 

The reason for switching to e-buses is clear enough: reduction in fossil fuel use and air pollution, which kills seven people every year according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report. But given India’s ambitious plan to go completely electric in public and private transport by 2030, the question is: why has only the Manali-Rohtang experiment been a commercial success while other states still appear to be experimenting at a low scale? In fact, it took a recent Supreme Court order to jolt Rajasthan Roadways to at least moot the idea of plying battery-operated buses on the busy Delhi-Jaipur route.

“Going electric involves changes in lifecycle and infrastructure,” said Bhatt. “It’s a new technology. And there is always resistance to change.” Also, the technology of the Chinese buses is far from proven. For instance, how will the batteries perform in Delhi’s high summer temperatures of over 40 degrees?

The other challenge lies in the capital cost of switching to e-vehicles. The procurement cost of e-buses range from Rs 1.7 crore to Rs 2.3 crore each, three times that of CNG buses, plus cost of creating new infrastructure like charging stations and managing the operation of these buses. Bangalore, for instance, wanted to buy the buses and outsource its operation, a model that apparently has now been dropped . Then there is the question of reliability, longevity and safety of the battery technology and the costs of creating the manufacturing infrastructure for the same in India.

Under the  the FAME scheme, about 60 per cent of the fleet’s cost is borne by the Centre. The rest of the cost is to be borne by the state government and their transport corporations, which also seems to be a key bottleneck, as most of them are deeply in the red.

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