Can electric vehicles check rising carbon emissions in Chennai?

A recent study has ranked Chennai second among all metros in terms of overall vehicular emissions. It also stands second in fuel consumption. Can electric vehicles provide a solution? What could be the ways to expedite the switch?

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities

At a time when diesel and petrol prices have gone through the roof, a certain ambiguity prevails among many vehicle owners and operators in Chennai. They mull over more economical options, and one auto rickshaw driver sums it up saying, “Anything that is not as expensive as petrol and diesel would help us make some profit.” While street-side discussions focus mostly on the cost aspect, an equally pertinent and critical angle is that of pollution.

According to ‘The Urban Commute And How It Contributes to Pollution and Energy Consumption‘ — a CSE report analysing motorisation-related pollution in 14 cities in India — Chennai is ranked second on overall emissions among all metros. It also stands second in fuel consumption. While LPG and CNG are often advocated as replacements for diesel and petrol, being the by-products of fossil fuel processing and sources of non-renewable energy, they are not the cleanest fuel forms. The more eco-friendly choice would obviously be electric vehicles.

The hazards of conventional fuel

It is a well known fact that emissions from diesel and petrol vehicles are hazardous to the environment and public health. Diesel emissions of nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of ground level ozone. As pointed out by the Union of Concerned Scientists , ground level ozone pollution, formed when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions combine in the presence of sunlight, presents a hazard for both healthy adults and individuals suffering from respiratory problems, causing coughing, choking and reduced lung capacity.

In our earlier article in the series on vehicle emissions, we had discussed how diesel and petrol emit carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Shifting from diesel vehicles to electric vehicles can bring down air pollution caused by automobiles by as much as 90%, say automobile researchers.

“Diesel vehicles pollute 4X times more when stuck in traffic. Then again, the amount of pollution caused by one diesel engine is equal to the pollution caused by operating 40 electric vehicles (pollution caused by generation of electricity used to charge the batteries),” says Megha K, a researcher on sustainable transport.

Toxic emissions can be arrested by embracing electric vehicles, and the ideal solution would be an electric vehicle powered by solar energy. Solar powered vehicles are the cleanest as there is no indirect pollution even in terms of usage of electricity to charge the vehicles. However, that switch seems pretty impossible in the immediate circumstances, given the infrastructural gaps. 

Even if we look at regular electric vehicles, the recent announcement of the state Transport Minister M R Vijayabaskar on introduction of 80 battery run buses in Chennai, however, appears a case of too little, too late, especially given the increasing pollution levels in the city. It is a measly number when you consider that the MTC alone has over 3,600 buses that run with diesel.

Transport Secretary P W C Dawidar said that the government is roping in the electricity board department to set up charging points for the battery-run buses. “Expect a lot of battery run vehicles,” he hinted, when we contacted him.  

But how can we expedite the rate of adoption?

Economic considerations

The talk about electric vehicles focuses mostly on environmental advantages, but there also needs to be greater awareness about the associated livelihood benefits. Using an electric vehicle cuts down both capital and maintenance costs for the owner, according to a study conducted by Ozone Motors, an automobile company that designs electric four-wheelers.

An electric auto rickshaw in Siliguri. Credits: Wikicommons

The most common load vehicle on the road, Tata Ace, with a carrying capacity 500 – 800 kg of load, was used in the survey, and compared with a four wheeler electric vehicle that had equivalent capacity. The Tata Ace travelled 1 lakh kilometres (100km/day on average) over a span of five years.  The comparison yielded the following figures:

    Cost Diesel Vehicle Electric Vehicle
 Vehicle Rs 3.85 lakh Rs 7.5 lakh
 Insurance  Rs 75,000 Rs 1.5 lakh
General and major service Rs 1.6 lakh <Rs 20,000
Fuel* Rs 6.15 lakh Rs 33,000

*Fuel cost incurred for operating 1 lakh Kms includes fuel price for the diesel vehicle over a period of five years and in case of the electric vehicle, the effective cost of charging the batteries (in India). Also it must be noted that the exact cost of the vehicle itself would depend upon the manufacturing company.

“The user of an electric auto can save close to Rs 2.73/ km. Once the technology catches up and there is no scarcity of batteries, the price can be brought down even further, by an approximate 50%; with companies coming out with leasing models, the cost of ownership can be lower as well,” said Deepak Mohan, CEO, Ozone Motors.

Challenges and solutions

 The awareness about electric vehicles is meagre, especially in the informal sector. “I have seen it only on television” is the response from many citizens and auto drivers in Chennai. 

Practical problems continue to thwart uptake. “There need to be more charging stations in the city. Attractive subsidies and easy usage can bring in transformation in the formal and informal sectors,” says Deepak Mohan.

Some measures which can actually give a boost to adoption of electric vehicles are as follows:

  • Setting up more charging stations: Auto stands and bus depots can be equipped with such points.
  • Creating more awareness and dialogues around how electric vehicle adoption can directly attack soaring pollution levels, an issue that many Chennaiites are concerned about
  • The transport department can set up a wing for sustainable transport to provide technological and financial assistance to companies researching electric vehicles.

Environmentalists meanwhile advise policy makers and automobile companies to prioritise other sustainable fuel forms. “The source of electric energy is important. Lithium ion batteries are available only in a few countries; shifting to battery vehicles would create a monopoly similar to that enjoyed by oil companies in Arab countries. It is, therefore, important to consider sustainable options such as biogas and wind energy,” says Dr Indumathi M Nambi, Professor of Environmental Engineering, IIT-Madras.

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities, and explores the root causes for air pollution and solutions for improving air quality in Bengaluru and Chennai. This series has supported with a grant from Climate Trends.


  1. Arvind ar says:

    My concerns with ev are the disposal of the battery constituent. Will it lead to ground pollution.
    By migrating from air pollution are we overlooking the other aspects.

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