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Learning By Doing: Lessons on Electric Mobility from The Netherlands

India’s National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 aims to bring about a paradigm shift in the transport sector, estimating close to seven million hybrid or electric vehicles (EVs) in the next three years. By 2030, the Power Ministry hopes to get to full vehicle electrification. Examples from other countries have shown that with the right interventions, the transition to electric mobility is not only possible, but also comes with significant benefits.

This transition requires comprehensive policy and legislative interventions that cut across sectors – automobile, energy, climate, to name a few. China and the Netherlands have succeeded in increasing the share of electric vehicles. While China focussed on the automobile industry, The Dutch spurred the electric vehicle growth by focussing on charging infrastructure.

In India, the lack of public charging stations poses a significant barrier, one that has to be addressed if we are to meet our goals. It is unsurprising that NITI Aayog came out with a proposal to pilot charging infrastructure in Delhi. While this is a welcome move, it is important to identify this pilot as part of a larger plan. Importantly, this pilot should not be proof-of-concept, rather, it is a laboratory for public experimentation.

Focusing on the Energy Sector to Spur Electric Mobility

With ambitions of being a top cleantech country, the Netherlands’ choice to transition to electric mobility is understandable. Ninety percent of residents live in urban areas characterized by short travel distances, which are conducive to current versions of EVs. The country is neither a major manufacturer of automobiles nor does it have an extensive spare parts industry, but instead, provided incentives to consumers purchasing EVs and encouraged investments in charging technology. As a result, the Netherlands leads Europe on electric personal automobile sales, has the densest charging network worldwide, and is a major exporter of charging technology.

The installation of charging stations was led by a consortium of public and private entities that installed 3000 charging stations between 2009-2014. All charging stations are centrally managed and serve as a country-wide ‘living lab’ for smart charging. The living lab provides a platform for private businesses, universities, energy companies, and local and regional governments to cooperate and innovate on several products and services. Jedlix, a software application manages users’ charging by balancing production and consumption of renewable energy, for instance, by encouraging charging during the night when windmills generate a lot of energy and demand is low. Social charging, a social network app, allows EV users to share charging stations effectively. Additionally, users can optimize on speed of charging, maximizing clean energy, or lowering costs.

The Energy Sector is a Beneficiary of Electric Mobility, but Requires Major Reform

Changes in India’s electricity sector has meant that many public utilities are losing bulk consumers to Open Access. Some utilities claim that they are forced to back-down power plants to maintain demand-supply balance. For instance, in a recent petition before the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC), Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (BESCOM) has claimed that close to 250 MW of generating capacity was backed-down due to consumers moving to procure energy through the Open Access route. Electric mobility, which offers a large consumer base, provides these utilities with an opportunity to maximise the value for their power purchase agreements, and ensure that their cash-flow continues. Foresight by public utilities is crucial to ‘capture’ these consumers. Additionally, electric mobility requires reliable electricity, for which, current metrics need significant improvement if whole new EV loads are going to come onto the system.

The Way Forward

India has lessons to learn from the Dutch success in rapidly increasing charging infrastructure. Like the Dutch cities, Indian cities are dense, with typical trip lengths less than 10km. Like the Netherlands, India does not have differential energy pricing. Unlike the Netherlands, however, India has many issues that require resolution – access, distribution, pricing, and reliability.

A successful transition requires involvement of actors from energy, climate, and transport sectors, and it is important for policy makers to consider key issues. India still has a significant energy access problem. Any electric mobility policy should be careful about not moving resources away from the country’s electrification programs nor should it require installation of new coal power plants.

At present, India’s electricity is primarily coal-powered, which means that while tail-pipe emissions would be reduced, thus improving air quality in urban areas, it would not reduce the transport sector’s emissions as it merely shifts the location of emissions. This can be easily mitigated considering India’s energy targets – 175 GW of installed renewables, and climate targets – 40 percent of installed power plants being non-fossil. EVs offer a promising opportunity not only in cleaning up the transport sector’s emissions, but also in reforming the energy sector.

The Dutch example offers insights, but is only one of many pieces of a puzzle. A learning-by-doing approach like that adopted by China and the Netherlands could help identify missing pieces.

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