Whether to Drive Electric? Its all about Location, Location and Location!


(Nissan Leaf)

The world is moving today into a carbon regime. GHG emission caps/targets, emission trading, carbon taxes, reduction in coal consumption or protection of coal reserves and carbon sequestration have been some of the buzz words that many of us don’t understand (though most pretend to!)

Some environmental hardliners believe that a stage will soon come where there will be carbon driven stock markets, only low carbon goods and services will be offered, low carbon infrastructure will be the style of built environment (whatever it means) and there will be a universal carbon currency replacing US$ and the Euro. Your bank account for example will hold 100 tons of carbon (to trade, invest or use) and not a deposit of 10000 USD.

All on this planet will be encouraged towards low carbon living and carbon will be responsible for the decisions.

I decided to practice low carbon living myself to demonstrate everyone and take a lead. I thought that was a noble move –Some however cautioned me that low carbon living is not easy and could even be expensive.

The first thing I decided was to change my present diesel driven SUV to an Electric Vehicle (EV). In order that I do not show any preference to any business house making EVs in India (particularly my good friend Anand Mahindra), I decided to import a Nissan Leaf (the best Plug in Electric Vehicle or PEV) from Nissan’s plant in Sunderland in the UK. This was an expensive buy but I decided to spend this money to show my commitment to low carbon living.

EVs  were introduced 100 years ago. Whether it’s a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric, the demand for electric drive vehicles (EV) is on the rise. Currently more than 3 percent of new vehicle sales are EV, and the sales could to grow to nearly 7 percent — or 6.6 million per year — worldwide by 2020


Despite my diplomatic influence, procurement of Nissan Leaf took quite a while as the testing and certification agencies were not accustomed to handle an imported EV. After three months of juggling and back and forth movement of papers, the Nissan Leaf EV finally arrived at my Bungalow. I decided to invite my Professor Friend to see the Leaf and take a ride with me to get the “feeling” of “sustainable mobility”. I set up a coffee table in my garden with a large ash tray as usual and was waiting for Professor’s arrival.

When Professor reached my house, I was charging my Nissan on the home plug. Nissan LEAF can charge its lithium-ion battery from 0% to 80% in approximately 30 minutes using a rapid charger; using an approved Home Charging Unit either 8 hours for a 16A unit, or 4 hours using a 32A unit.

“Well you can start using EV without a public charging infrastructure or wait for the DISCOM to come forward and invest. And note that Lithium ion batteries can be recycled up to 95% leading to fairly low impact on the environment.” I said this but carefully so as not to sound that I work as an agent to Nissan, UK.

But the Professor was not interested in such details. Instead, he flashed me a print-out taken from the Straights of Singapore.

The news was about Nguyen who imported Tesla’s 2014 Model S from Hong Kong to Singapore. Nguyen was expecting a rebate under Singapore’s Carbon Emissions Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) for his good gesture. However, he got a shock when he was fined S$15,000 after his Model S underwent mandatory emissions testing by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA). This emission tests were conducted by the LTA under the UNECE R101 standards and had found that the electric energy consumption of an imported used Tesla car was 444 watt-hour/km. To “account for CO2 emissions during the electricity generation process”, the spokesman said, “A grid emission factor of 0.5g/watt-hour was applied to the electric energy consumption”. From this, it was determined that Mr. Nguyen’s Tesla produced 222g/km of CO2, putting it within the S$15,000 surcharge band under Singapore’s Carbon Emission- based Vehicle Scheme.

The Model S is granted tax breaks in several countries. In Britain, buyers get a £4,500 (S$8,800) grant, and in the United States, they get a US$7,500 (S$10,400) income tax credit. Hong Kong waives registration tax for electric cars, which can be as high as 115 per cent of value. In Norway, a Model S gets a tax exemption of around US$135,000.


”How silly. So the customer of Tesla in Singapore was punished and not rewarded” I responded to Professors news item in a tone of frustration and disgust.

Taking a sip of the coffee, I added “Professor, if this happens in India, then the entire FAME program will go bust!”

The Ministry recently launched ‘FAME India – Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles in India’ as part of the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan. The ‘FAME India’ scheme offers incentives on electric and hybrid vehicles of up to Rs 29,000 for bikes and Rs 1.38 lakh for cars, aiming to promote use of eco-friendly vehicles. The first phase of the scheme is being implemented over a two-year period in 2015-16 and 2016-17 with an approved outlay of Rs 795 crore, out of which Rs 500 crore will be spent on demand incentives. As per the scheme, depending on technology, battery operated scooters and motorcycles will be eligible for incentives in the range of Rs 1,800 to Rs 29,000, while for three-wheelers, it is between Rs 3,300 and Rs 61,000. While in light commercial vehicles it is from Rs 17,000 to Rs 1.87 lakh, and for buses it is from Rs 34 lakh to Rs 66 lakh. Under the scheme, the customer gets the incentive in the form of lower cost of hybrid or EV at the time of its purchase. Manufacturers can claim the incentive from the government at the end of each month.


The heavy industries ministry has estimated a total requirement of about Rs 14,000 crore for the scheme. Against this “expenditure”, the plan aims to help save Rs 60,000 crore annually in the country’s oil import bill by 2020. I thought these calculations clearly show the strong case to “drive electric”. In addition, we achieve 100% emission reduction from the tail pipes and the consequent environmental and health damage costs. Thus, not just the Government, Customer and the EV Manufacturer gets benefited but importantly the environment. It is not surprising therefore that many feel that promotion of EVs through FAME is a giant step toward cleaner mobility. Electric vehicles are seen by governments as an important part of cutting emissions and reducing global warming.

Professor was however serious and did not look convinced by the FAME approach of giving subsidies. He took a deep puff from his cigar.

“Prasad, I have two major concerns on the EV”

First, how EVs and particularly their batteries, are manufactured and disposed

Second and perhaps equally or even more important – How the electricity which powers EV is generated.

“Given that the vast majority of power generation around the world is grid-tied, where a car is charged plays a large role in determining its carbon emissions. EVs carbon emissions can be four times greater in places with coal dominated generation than in those with low carbon power generation such as hydel, renewable and nuclear. There are bound to be emissions somewhere, may not be at the point of use”

Having said this Professor opened his briefcase and showed me a figure as below.


image: http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Emissions-Equivalent-Petrol-Car.gif

Although the above data is rather dated it drives the point that the country or the location matters. The legend to the right of this chart helps explain what is driving the variation between countries.   In India, Australia and China coal’s dominance in the fuel mix means that grid powered EVs produce emissions ranging from 370-258 g CO2e/km, many multiples of those using low carbon sources. Contrast this to hydroelectric exporter Paraguay where virtually all of the 70 g CO2e/km results from vehicle manufacturing, and electric driving is significantly lower carbon than using solar power.”

These figures were shocking to me.

“So do you mean to say that the geography or location matters?”

“Indeed” said the Professor. A recent study in the US carried out by a group of economists makes this point. Using a fine-grained, county-level measure of U.S. vehicle emissions traced to tailpipes and electricity grids, these researchers mapped the petrol cars and EVs. They found that in some locations going electric does more harm to the environment not justifying the subsidy. Like done in the Singapore case, the EVs should be actually taxed and not incentivized.

The researchers focused on five major pollutants: carbon (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter (PM 2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They considered 11 different 2014 models of EVs, as well as the “closest substitute” petrol car. For petrol, calculating environmental damage was pretty straightforward. The researchers considered factors like a car’s fuel-efficiency rating (city miles for urban counties, highway miles for non-urban), pollutant dispersion (such as average wind patterns), and number of environmental damages (to health, infrastructure, crops, and so on). Together that data gave them the aggregate emissions of driving a certain petrol car one mile in a given U.S. county.

Determining the comparable damage from electric vehicles was a bit trickier. Here they used an EV’s fuel-efficiency equivalent (kilowatt-hours per mile) to figure out how much electricity it drew from a regional grid. They also knew the hourly emissions profiles for the five target pollutants at 1,486 power plants across the U.S. So for each county they knew how the grid responded when an EV plugged in, which told them how much environmental damage that car produced at the power plant. The researchers then converted all their damage estimates into dollar values.

The study co-author Stephen Holland of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro says “The real big take-home message is: location, location, location.”

A country’s energy mix thus affects the environmental advantage of EVs. It can even depend on what time of day the batteries are charged because night-time electricity is less dependent on coal.

Electricity from coal, which is the most polluting way to generate power, drastically reduces the environmental advantage for EVs. Because China, for example, generates almost all its power from coal, life cycle analysis of EV cars in China shows they are far more polluting than conventional cars. I won’t be surprised that the result will be same for India” Professor said this with confidence.

However in a country like Norway, where most power is generated from hydroelectricity, EVs fairly quickly begin to outperform conventional cars in terms of their overall environmental impact.

(Read “Environmental benefits from driving electric vehicles?” Holland, S., Mansur, E., Muller, N. and Yates, A. NBER Working Paper No. 21291. June 2015)

In 2012 President Obama launched the EV Everywhere Grand Challenge — an Energy Department initiative that brought together America’s best and brightest scientists, engineers and businesses to make plug-in electric vehicles more as affordable as today’s petrol -powered vehicles by 2022. On the battery front, the Department’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory was commissioned to overcome the biggest scientific and technical barriers that prevent large-scale improvements of batteries. The Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is advancing today game-changing technologies that could alter how we think of electric vehicles. From investing in new types of batteries that could go further on a single charge to cost-effective alternatives to materials critical to electric motors, ARPA-E’s projects may simply transform the EVs.

So the key is not popularize EVs through financial incentives alone, but build a mission on EV like launched by Obama. But given our poor performance of coal based thermal power plants we will need to take Initiatives to improve the Efficiency of Coal Based Power Plants and in addition the AT&C Losses factor (kgCO2e/kWh). We need FAME but more critically de-carbonization and efficiency improvement in the power sector to get the environmental benefits of EVs.

Minister Piyush Goel has recognized importance of this challenging task and announced policy on modernization and phase out with emphasis on renewable energy” Professor said (he was probably the SA or Secret Advisor to Minister Goel)

Professor then showed me work done by Gyan Prakash of CBalance. Gyan Prakash  published a very interesting data and analyses on the Electricity generation factor (kgCO2e/kWh) of coal based thermal power production in India.   The data is now a bit dated but the observations made then are perhaps still valid.


Prakash found that the average India electricity generation emission factor is 0.89 kgCO2e/kWh (or 0.89 g/Watt hour) and average India AT&C loss emission factor is 0.30 kgCO2e/kWh. This data does not make a good case for EVs. In fact promotion of EVs will lead to more GHG emissions than petrol cars. In many cases we can see that states have a low adjusted emission factor for generation but due to high AT&C losses their end user emission factor is higher than the India avg. emission factor. Fixing the AT&C losses should therefore be the priority and as it is a low hanging fruit.

Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Uttarakhand, Kerala are the States where the emission generation factors are less than 0.5 kgCO2e/kWh.

“Find a job to teach at the Doon University and take your Nissan Leaf there. Only then you can justify your choice of going electric. You cannot drive this car in Delhi and claim low carbon living!” Professor said this while extinguishing his cigar.

I was aghast with his suggestion.

My wife was listening to our conversation.

“Let us move to Mussorie” she said. “Don’t you think the location to live also matters?”

I thought that this was perhaps the best part our conversation of the morning.

Beep beep came in the sound from my Garage– my Nissan Leaf was fully charged and was ready to go.

But I was not excited to go electric anymore.

Cover image sourced from http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/136894-will-high-mileage-nissan-leafs-need-costly-battery-replacements-soon



  1. Dear Prasad:

    Fully agree with your analysis about EVs. Don’t know whether you are aware of Bhutan’s attempts to promote large scale use of EVs – probably there it makes sense given Hydro is their main source of electricity…

    I haven’t yet received your book…. Would like to carry it with me to Myanmar… -:)



  2. Very true….EV needs right places. But still I feel a scientific comparative study is required as emission effects and related environmental and health cost are not considered in the current analysis.EV may use carbon intensive power source but emission is nil and in the ends it may still be better than fossil fuel driven cars…My experience of driving Electric scooter (while I was posted at Chandigarh) was horrible. I need to register, pay the same tax as petrol models and I did not get any benefit. Service was another nightmare. On my return to Bangalore, I sold it as a scrap…..We still do not have a favourable environment to promote EV vehicles…………Lets hope best this time…

  3. Hi Prasad I have come to the same conclusion. A recent visit to Norway confirmed it. They have incentivised (horrible word!) EVs with free parking, reduced registration fees and other temporary favours until the EV park builds up. As you know, Norway is 100% hydro, so the emissions during driving are close to zero. But no-one talks of the biodiversity impact of building more hydro schemes. In the end, there is no free lunch. Under pressure from my wife, we gave away our car in Paris and now use public transport. For long trips we rent a car. Location, location, location is especially important for choosing the place to live where you don’t need to travel so much. ( I will touch on this when I reply to you about my recent visit to Surya Chandak in Jaipur.) And city planning, of course.

    You may be interested to know that the Automobile Association in the US did some comparative test of vehicles for total environmental performance. The Toyota Prius was rated alongside the Hummer! ‘It’s the battery, stupid’, is what they said. Hopefully things have improved a little on this aspect.

    Interesting subject, so many parameters to take into account.

    Next subject could be biofuels. Even more complicated.

    All the best



  4. Eye opening sir. However in a country like India whete cities are converting into gas chambers due to vehiclular emissions, it do make sense to encourage EVs at they help to improve local air quliry and make the cities breathable. But you are absolutely right that we are sourcing our power from dirty fuel coal which needs to be changed. Further these coal based power plants are water guzzelers and fare poorly on all the parameters of sustainability.

  5. Electricity is only a byproduct of a primary energy, so all electrical appliances have an environmental and health impacts depending on the source of electricity. But electrification has become a symbol of development. From an environmental conservation point, regardless of EV or else, a shift from private to public commuting is the step needed. More important is to plan urban development with a minimum commuting needs. Regards

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