It was in March 2018, that the Delhi government while presenting its ‘Green Budget’ for the financial year 2018-19 committed to procuring 1000 electric buses for the roads of Delhi and outlined a timeline for its implementation. A year later, the first set of global tenders for 375 buses have just been issued, following a pilot project in the latter half of 2018. In the meantime, we have heard of several other cities launching e-buses, though any major city-wide transition or significant breakthrough in terms of adoption is yet to be reported.
When will Delhi commuters finally see electric buses on their regular roads and will it prove to be more than the odd experiment in electric mobility? More importantly, can we expect an uptake that will make a dent in emissions-related pollution in the capital?
We spoke to Jasmine Shah, the Vice Chairperson of the Delhi Dialogue and Development Commission (DDC) – an advisory body to the Delhi government — earlier in March to know more about the exact goals with regard to induction of e-buses in the capital and the journey towards that over the last one year.
We first heard of e-buses for Delhi in the budget speech of March 2018. But it was only a week back that the first set of tenders were reportedly issued. Can you tell us what has been happening over the past year and where the plan for electrification of buses stands at present?
For us, the entire imperative to move towards electric vehicles and devise a policy around that was driven by the goal of doing whatever we could do, within the powers of the Delhi government, to fight pollution. Through the Green Budget announcement, we listed out a 26-point agenda covering 5 departments of the government, listing initiatives addressed at mitigating pollution for each department . For the Transport Department, some 6 or 7 initiatives were listed, two of which were the introduction of a fleet of 1000 electric buses and drawing up of a comprehensive EV policy. That was the starting point.
When it came to electric buses, we realised we would have to study the technology and all aspects of the project before we actually commit to investing in the buses and bringing them on to the roads. In May 2018, we appointed a consultant, DIMTS (Delhi Integrated Multi-modal Transit Systems] – a special purpose vehicle floated by the Delhi government — to do a detailed technical study on electric buses. They would also be the bid management consultant for the project.
Between May 2018 and December 2018, DIMTS conducted a thorough study and analysis, which included a study of successful global experiences. Delegations from the Delhi government (including the Minister of Transport) visited China and other locations. DIMTS itself appointed an international consultant to advise them on learnings from such global experiences.
At the end of this extremely comprehensive study, DIMTS submitted a report with detailed proposals in Jan 2019 — on charging infrastructure, different battery models, different modes of operating services,the merits of upfront subsidies versus subsidies over a period of time etc. A lot of analysis and homework went behind the proposal and report. Based on the recommendations of the DIMTS and the observations of our own transport department, we finalised the plan to induct the 1000 e-buses in Feb 2019.
But there was a trial run even before this study was concluded…
Yes, as the study was in progress, we were also in constant touch with various manufacturers of electric buses; we asked them to deploy one bus each for a trial run in Delhi. This would help us to ascertain the battery performance, the charging time for batteries etc. within the framework of conditions in the capital. Manufacturers could claim a lot, but since we are planning an induction in such a large scale, we needed to see some real data.
Three major manufacturers came forward with one bus each and for 2-3 months they ran their bus in different routes of Delhi. The entire performance was monitored very closely. That was also factored in to the final report that DIMTS submitted.
Delhi released its draft electric vehicle (EV) policy for public consultation in November 2018, much before this report came in; so would you also incorporate changes in that based on the DIMTS proposals?
There are actually two separate things here. As part of the larger EV policy and strategy, we realised that public transport, and buses in particular, were among the things that were largely under government control and we should go ahead and do it at once. The rest of the EV policy is at a conceptual stage and we are looking at the strategy for different segments and finalising those. But if you look at all segments in transport that are to be electrified, then buses are in fact low-hanging fruit because the govt has fair control over that, and the charging infrastructure could also be set up at the bus depots, terminals etc.
After DIMTS submitted its report, in February 2019, we got Cabinet approval to acquire these electric buses and based on our own assessment of the time needed to set up depots, power infrastructure, we realised that two depots were ready for tendering. In the first week of March, we issued global tender for 375 electric buses. The entire fleet of 1000 will be procured in phases and this is the first phase in which we will acquire 375. Once the elections are over, tenders for the rest will be issued.
How many buses were part of the trial run? What were the findings from this pilot?
Three buses from three different manufacturers: Olektra BYD, PMI-Photon and JBM Solaris Eco Life.
The main aim of the trial was to gauge the technical and operational aspects — the battery capacity, recharge times, different battery chemistries etc. For example, it was only through the trial that we came to know that for one of the buses, the batteries were taking a long time to charge because the charger being used was not of sufficiently high wattage. Day time charging for the buses needs to be fast, because you cannot have them grounded for long periods of time during the day.
On the whole, this was a successful pilot, with the buses running on real routes during regular commute hours. The buses were running along with our regular fleet of CNG buses on the same routes and riders or drivers did not know that the runs were being monitored, but we got useful data to help us make decisions.
Several other cities have launched e-buses, but we have not heard of a resounding success in adoption or scaling anywhere in the country; most of these appear to be sporadic attempts at electric mobility…what is Delhi doing differently?
There are two things that make us confident that the move to e-buses will be successful.
To understand the first, we need some context. There are two models on which Indian cities are running electric buses: one is buying the buses and then running and maintaining them, which is termed the Ownership/Capex model. The other is the Gross Cost Contract/Opex Model, where you let the private party — whoever has won the competitive bidding process — own it, maintain and operate the buses. By and large, the consensus among all experts is to go with the latter in Indian cities.
After all, we are dealing with new technology here; we have to understand battery chemistry and the like. Government officials are not expected to be on top of the technology evolution curve and hence to buy these expensive and sophisticated buses would be a risk.
That brings us to the Opex Model. Now, Delhi has been a pioneer in operating buses under that model, and that is an acknowledged fact throughout India. We have been following it right since 2011, with 1700 of our CNG buses running under this model and the entire contracting process is very mature and advanced.
If you look at the bid documents floated, which specifies how the responsibilities will be divided between the government and the private party, how financing will be done, how the service level agreements are defined and every other minute detail, it runs into hundreds of pages. All of this has been learned over time and it leads to compliance and high quality output from the private concessionaire. So the 1000 electric buses that will be inducted in Delhi will be managed on the basis of the know how that Delhi has acquired over 8 years in successfully contracting and running buses on the Gross Cost Contract Model.
Secondly, you will find that many of the cities, lured by the FAME I subsidy offered, just went ahead and purchased these buses without enough research and planning, or the required level of technical expertise within the state transport corporations. In fact, I would say FAME I actually proved counterproductive to successful implementation of electric mobility since the announcement for the first round of subsidies for e-buses was made in December 2017 and cities were asked to complete the tendering and bidding process within just two months if they wished to avail the subsidy. This led many cities to just rush into purchasing buses.
On the contrary, we took almost 8 months to do 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. For example, this led us to identify two different needs: parent depots where the buses would be parked overnight, and secondly, what we have termed host depots — where the buses can go for intermittent quick charging during the day whenever needed. All this took us 7 to 8 months of planning — getting permission from DTC for host depots, getting commitments from the discoms in terms of the power infrastructure, identifying land for depots etc. Only after this was done did we go for tendering.
Speaking of pollution control, which is the primary aim of electrification of mobility, what is the plan for the older fleet of buses?
In Delhi, we have phased out all old diesel buses, and we have a completely CNG-powered fleet. We are not thinking of junking any CNG buses, because once you have purchased a CNG bus, its average life span is 10-12 years, and CNG is anyway a comparatively much cleaner fuel. We will not put a hard stop to any CNG bus; as and when they come to the end of their lives, we will take a decision on the replacement.
If Delhi sees an effective and successful run of these 1000 electric buses on the roads, we may very well commit that all future purchases of buses in the state will be electric buses. This is also a good time for that, because you see most of our fleet was acquired between 2007 and 2012-13, so that by 2020-21, quite a number of these will start retiring.
So, how do you see these 1000 electric buses making an impact on pollution?
We are looking at urban transport policy as a strategy to combat pollution; to do so, first and foremost we have to put aside all debates — forget electric vs CNG — and strengthen public transport. You need to improve the reliability of public transport, its safety, affordability. Everything else is secondary.
We have a severe shortfall in the number of public buses in Delhi. We are right now at somewhere around 5500 buses while our interim plan is to reach 11000. Beyond that, we want to move to 16000-18000, but that is farther down the line. At present, towards attaining the 11000 goal, the Delhi government has already issued tenders for 1000 standard floor CNG buses and 1000 low-floor CNG buses, in addition to the 1000 electric buses mentioned. So 3000 buses in all are under procurement.
The first objective is to increase the accessibility and reliability of public transport, so that more people can be persuaded to move from private vehicles to these, and secondly, to do so using cleaner and zero-emission fuels.
What do you expect the cost of the electric buses to be?
Well, that will be known once the tendering process is complete. But since the buses are anyway going to be run on a Gross Cost Model, what really matters is the per kilometre cost of operating these buses. The bidders will quote a comprehensive amount keeping in mind the capital cost, the cost of maintaining these buses for 10-12 buses, insurance, salaries etc. They will quote an operating cost per kilometre after taking all this into account.
On the other hand, we will have conductors in the bus and whatever is collected in the fare box goes to the Delhi government. The difference between these is the viability gap, which is borne by the government. Currently, Rs 65/km is what the net cost of operation turns out to be for the standard floor CNG buses we are running on the same model. The revenue from the fare box is between Rs 30 and 32/km, so roughly 50% is the viability gap. For a low floor electric bus, the cost would definitely be higher than Rs 65. But it’s difficult to predict; there is intense competition in the EV industry and maybe we could see the costs coming down.
What are the main challenges that you foresee?
I think it is going to be getting all the government bodies and authorities aligned to the needs. On the technology front, I think we are ready for deployment. Especially after noting the successful experiments in China, technology does not appear to be a constraint. But in any city, and especially in Delhi, we have a problem of too many authorities reporting to different lines.
Let me give you an example. Even for running these 1000 e-buses, these are the various authorities that we’ve had to bring on board. Of course, we need a buy-in from the Delhi Transport Department which is the owner of the project; then there is the DTC which is an independent statutory corporation, but they need to be brought on board because they will provide access to various host depots for day time charging of the buses. Third, we need the power department and discoms to work in sync, so that the power infrastructure cam be readied within a time and schedule that matches the delivery of buses. Finally, to lay power lines, or get other basic infrastructure in place, you need land — the roads. In Delhi, we have 11 road-owning agencies! Permissions from all these have to be acquired in time. So I feel the entire challenge of a project as this is internal, hardly external.
So, do you think setting up a dedicated EV transport body or authority would help to overcome this challenge?
I don’t think so, really. Setting up another authority to tide over problems created by multiple authorities in the first place would really only add to the mess in my opinion. We could perhaps have an empowered coordinating committee with representation from the bureaucratic heads of all these bodies. But the problem is, thanks to the unfortunate but continuous political tussle between the Delhi government and the Centre and the MCD, you can set up any number of committees but the overriding chances are that they will never show up in the meetings or deliberations.
So yes, it is challenging, but thankfully in this case, especially since there is also an environmental imperative, both the Supreme Court and the High Court are also very active. We are using funds from the Environment Compensation Charge (collected from diesel trucks crossing Delhi), which is a court-monitored fund, to finance the upfront subsidies for these buses. So we can only hope that if there are undue delays on the part of any authority, the courts will step in.
Infrastructurally, how prepared is Delhi at this point? Is the city ready enough to have electric buses plying successfully on the roads?
There are two parts to this: there are depots and there is the required power infrastructure. Presently, we have identified two depots which are at a fairly advanced stage of construction and will be ready in the next 3-4 months. The work on the power infrastructure could commence only after we acquired Cabinet approval, so the real work has begun only now. However, we have a commitment from the discoms that all of this will be ready within six months. That is also the time — that is six months from the beginning of March — when we expect the first fleet of electric buses to hit Delhi roads.