Bounce offers battery replacement for his Infinity E1 electric scooter. Representative pictures. (Photo: Abhinav Zakhar)
By Pawan Mulukutla
Utilizing the impetus for the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in the country, the Center announced in February its intention to draft a battery replacement policy to further accelerate the adoption of cleaner vehicles. In presenting the Union Budget for 2022-23, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman encouraged private players to create sustainable and innovative business models for ‘battery or power as a service’.
The initial hurdles faced by the EV sector in India (hybrid and) were smoothed through schemes and policies like rapid adoption and production of electric vehicles (FAME) and various other initiatives of the state governments. These have helped ensure that the EV sector continues to grow despite the breakdown across the global lockdown industry. With encouraging signs, India is committed to ensuring that 30% of car sales are electric by the end of this decade.
Any conversations around EVs quickly turn to technical and logistical hurdles in re-energizing their battery packs. This can be done in two ways: by installing charging points in private and public places and by installing battery swapping booths. While the former requires more land and higher capacity charging equipment, the latter does not. The battery switching facility is similar to fuel refilling, as the EV’s battery can be switched to a fully charged battery as fast as an internal combustion engine car fuel.
Charging stations are often equipped with direct current (DC) fast chargers that are used to reduce the waiting time for the consumer. There are a few downsides to this. Fast charging reduces battery charging cycles, especially in an uncontrolled environment, which is exposed to the ambiguity of the weather in India. They need more space, a lack in urban areas, they accommodate vehicles as charged. Even the fastest chargers take at least half an hour for a scooter. Another disadvantage of fast charging stations is their high power demand which refers to the power grid. Increasing the capacity of substations and their density is a capital-intensive process. Furthermore, high-capacity charging stations can destabilize relatively low-power residential grids because EV charging can cause voltage fluctuations, making the installation there less than ideal for residential areas.
On the other hand, setting up charging points can be cheaper if the cost of land is excluded. Battery swapping stations can stack multiple batteries on top of each other, further reducing the need for land. It also allows switching stations to be built between fuel stations.
Battery swapping stations, where less land is required, cost more battery than on-road EV to ensure continuous availability. This is a cost that will have to be borne by the fleet operators in the commercial sector. Soon after the central budget called on private players to invest in switching batteries, several business leaders backed them. Some wanted subsidies for ‘floating’ batteries or extra batteries needed for battery swapping logistics, which do not support the current FAME scheme. For their part, private players need to come together and ensure the cross-compatibility of batteries and EVs so that the built-in infrastructure is used to its full potential.
Operators prefer to invest in battery swapping stations rather than fast charging points because the former gives them more control over maintaining electricity demand and supply. For example, local disk agencies are promoting a ‘time-of-day’ (TOD) tariff regime according to the power demand profile for disk’s service area. ToD also helps stabilize day-to-day demand, keeping it below the substation’s power supply capacity. On the other hand, fast charging requires expensive infrastructure and high-capacity substations to meet its energy needs. Battery swapping allows operators to charge the battery separately from the swapping station. This gives them more flexibility in setting up interchange stations in urban areas.
To make battery-switching stations financially sustainable, standardization of batteries and terminal points plays an important role. However, as competition for new markets heats up early, vehicle manufacturers are investing a significant portion of their resources in research and development of more sophisticated batteries.
The Center has already taken the first step towards this end. In August 2020, the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) approved the sale of EVs without pre-fitted batteries. This reduces the cost of the car (batteries can be up to 50% of the cost of an EVs), giving the consumer the freedom to lease batteries without having to worry about long-term maintenance and associated costs. This allows consumers to use the battery swapping station and the option to separate the batteries for charging at home. While a controlled charging environment helps increase battery life, consumers also benefit from the rapidly evolving battery technology. At present, most electric vehicles are fitted with lithium-ion batteries, but they are expected to be replaced with lithium-graphene, which, despite its small size, has a high capacity.
Battery swapping points are a welcome advantage for those who do not have access to a charging point at home or work. It also allows for minimal downtime for commercial operators – especially those who perform last-mile deliveries as a battery replacement. One of the great benefits of fully swapping batteries is the fact that the car is fully charged in two to five minutes.
Around the world, especially in the global north, battery charging points have gained significant traction compared to swapping stations. This is mainly because in western countries EVs are either cars for personal use or buses for commercial activities. Switching is not a convenient option for heavy vehicles as it requires heavy lifting of large batteries. However, the situation is very different in India – about 70% of the vehicles on the road are two-wheelers. Commercial activity of two-wheelers has also increased significantly, especially since the epidemic-induced lockdown. And the batteries found in electric two-wheelers can be easily replaced manually due to their low weight. Automated battery switching infrastructure is not required to remove two-wheeled batteries, battery swapping has significant potential in the segment as far as it goes.
WRI India’s analysis shows that the total cost of operating electric two-wheelers for commercial operators has reached parity with petrol bikes within one year of use without using FAME subsidy. Realizing the market for this, electric two-wheeler manufacturers, operators and aggregators have already begun collaborating with e-commerce, cloud kitchens and grocery stores to reduce the cost of hyperlocal delivery. Also, a vehicle manufacturer recently announced its commitment to battery swapping stations, even for personal use. Due to the high usage of segments and the lack of time to charge their batteries, a dense battery-switching network in urban areas would go a long way in accelerating the EV sector.
Disclaimer: Pawan Mulukutla is the Director of Energy Technology and Green Mobility at World Resources Institute India. Published opinions are personal.