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Bounce offers battery change for its Infinity E1 electric scooter. Representative photo. (Image: Abhinav Jakhar)

by Pawan Mulukutla

Capitalizing on the impetus for electric vehicle (EV) adoption in the country, the Center announced in February its intention to establish a battery replacement policy to further accelerate the introduction of cleaner vehicles. Presenting the Union budget for the year 2022-23, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman encouraged private players to develop sustainable and innovative business models for ‘Battery of Energy as a Service’.

The first hurdles faced by the EV sector were removed through schemes and policies such as Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME) and several other state government initiatives. These have contributed to the continued growth of the EV sector, despite the global lockdown that puts a brake on all sectors. With encouraging signs, India has committed to ensuring that 30% of car sales are electric by the end of the decade.

Any conversation about EVs quickly turns into technological and logistical hurdles when reactivating their battery packs. This can be done in two ways: placing charging points in private and public spaces and installing battery exchange booths. While the former requires more land and higher capacity loading equipment, the latter does not. The ease of changing batteries is comparable to that of topping up with fuel, as the battery in the EV can be exchanged with a fully charged battery just as quickly as refueling a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.

Charging stations are often equipped with direct current (DC) fast chargers to minimize the waiting time for the consumer. This has a few drawbacks. Fast charging reduces battery charge cycles, especially in an uncontrolled environment exposed to the vagaries of India’s weather conditions. They also need more space, a scarcity in urban areas, to accommodate vehicles while they charge. Even the fastest chargers take at least half an hour for scooters. Another disadvantage of fast charging stations is the high power demand that puts a strain on the electricity grid. Increasing the capacity of substations and their density is a capital intensive process. In addition, high-power charging stations can destabilize relatively low-power residential networks due to the voltage fluctuations that electric vehicle charging can cause, making their use less than ideal for residential areas.

On the other hand, charging stations can be cheaper to set up if ground costs are excluded. Battery change stations can also stack multiple batteries on top of each other, further reducing the ground required. This means that exchange stations can also be built within filling stations.

Battery swap stations, while needing less land, have to pay the price of having more batteries than EVs on the road to ensure constant availability. These are costs that must be borne by fleet managers in the commercial segment. Shortly after the Union budget called on private players to invest in battery replacement, several business leaders lent their support. Some also requested subsidies for ‘floating’ batteries or extra batteries needed for the logistics of battery exchange, something that the current FAME scheme does not support. Private players, for their part, need to come together and ensure battery and EV compatibility to ensure the best use of built infrastructure.

Operators also prefer to invest in battery exchange stations rather than fast charging stations, as the former gives greater control over maintaining electricity supply and demand. For example, local disco agencies promote a ‘Time-of-Day’ (ToD) rate regime according to the power demand profile for the discom’s service area. ToD also helps spread the demand throughout the day, keeping it below the capacity of the substation supplying the energy. On the other hand, fast charging requires expensive infrastructure and high capacity substations to meet the energy demand. By changing batteries, operators can also charge the batteries separately from the changing station. This gives them more flexibility when setting up exchange stations in an urban area.

Standardization of battery and connection points plays an important role in making battery exchange stations financially sustainable. However, as competition heats up to capture the emerging market at the earliest, automakers are investing a significant portion of their resources into researching and developing more advanced batteries.

The Center has already taken the first steps towards this end goal. In August 2020, the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) allowed EVs to be sold without pre-assembled batteries. This drastically reduces the price of the vehicle (batteries can account for up to 50% of the cost of an electric car), while giving consumers the freedom to lease batteries without worrying about long-term maintenance and associated costs. cost. It also allows consumers to use battery change stations and the ability to disconnect batteries to recharge them at home. While a controlled charging environment helps extend battery life, consumers also benefit from keeping pace with rapidly evolving battery technologies. At present, most electric vehicles are equipped with lithium-ion batteries, but they are expected to be replaced by lithium graphene, which has a higher capacity and is smaller in size.

For people who do not have access to charging points in their living or working space, battery exchange points are a welcome convenience. Also for commercial operators – especially those making last-mile deliveries, as battery swapping allows for minimal downtime for their vehicles. Having a fully charged battery in the vehicle in two to five minutes is a major advantage of a battery change.

All over the world, especially in the north of the world, battery charging stations have gained significantly more traction compared to exchange stations. This is mainly because EVs in western countries are either cars for personal use or buses for commercial purposes. Swapping is not a convenient option for heavier vehicles as it requires heavy lifting of larger batteries. However, the situation in India is very different: almost 70% of the vehicles on the road are two-wheelers. Two-wheeler commercial activities have also increased significantly, especially since the pandemic-induced lockdowns. And batteries in electric two-wheelers can easily be changed manually due to their low weight. Since no automated battery change infrastructure is required to move two-wheeler batteries, there is significant potential in the battery change segment.

WRI India’s analysis shows that the total operating costs of electric two-wheelers for commercial operators are equivalent to petrol engines within one year of use, without recourse to FAME subsidies. Sensing the market for this, electric two-wheeler manufacturers, operators and aggregators have already started working with e-commerce, cloud kitchens and supermarkets to reduce the cost of hyper-local deliveries. In addition, a carmaker recently announced its commitment to battery-changing stations, even for personal use. Given the high utilization of the segment and lack of time to recharge their batteries, a dense battery exchange network in urban areas would go a long way in accelerating the EV sector.

Disclaimer: Pawan Mulukutla is Director of Energy Technology and Green Mobility at World Resources Institute India. Opinions expressed are personal.

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