Piyush Gupta is quick witted. He swaps numbers adroitly, intersperses his million battery-swapping dream and $1 billion investment ambition with his favourite refrain ,“anything that is good and cheap will sell”.
Spooning fruit custard in an upscale restaurant in New Delhi, Gupta pronounced the death of India’s 56,000 petrol pumps, is convinced that by 2030 (‘earlier’, he insists), India will switch to an entirely electric fleet and by 2019, no electric vehicle (EV) customer will be more than 2-kilometres away from a battery swap point.
Gupta is not riding a mythical high horse. He knows all about EVs and battery-swapping. He is the founder of Lithion Power, India’s largest ‘battery at service’ operator providing lithium ion batteries for e-bikes and 3-wheelers.
The New-Delhi headquartered 3-year old company, Lithion is also the world’s first EV company to make a sustainable battery-swapping model and aims to become the largest supplier of power to electric vehicles worldwide. Currently, Lithion has 6 EV Lithion Swapping Points (LSPs) in North and North-West Delhi. Soon, Gupta wants to scale to at least 500 LSPs in the capital and 10,000 across the country.
In the next 3 years, he is all set to manage 1 million batteries in its ecosystem, that is one-third of the predicted 3-4 million EV battery demand.
Sitting across the table over lunch, I wondered whether Gupta, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus with MBA from INSEAD, has gazed into the crystal ball.
“No, it is not a dream. It is a tangible reality.” Gupta cites the government’s edict that by 2030, India, set to be the world’s third largest car market within five years, will sell only electric vehicles.
The EV idea was sowed in 2015 with the launch Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles (FAME) under the National Electric Mobility Mission (NEMM).
If India switches to an entirely electric fleet, it can help reduce 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and save India $330 billion by cutting oil imports.
The EV dream - and the benefits - are many, but is it really feasible? The past few years have seen a substantial increase in the number of EVs - e-rickshaws have grown to 15 lakhs and are expected to double by 2020, and the market for e-autos, e-bikes, and e-scooters is growing exponentially.
However, with no robust EV manufacturing capacity, India’s 2030 EV dream seems a little far fetched (even Britain has set 2040 as its deadline). There are murmurs of interest from big players like Hyundai, Mahindra & Mahindra, Nissan, Maruti, Toyota and Tata. According to BIS Research, a global market intelligence, research and advisory company, a slew of EV models (25, to be precise) will be launched by 2021.
At Auto Expo 2018, Mercedes Benz displayed a concept of its electric vehicle and professed that it is ‘hypothetically’ ready for a launch in India in 2019. In March 2018, Nissan announced its promise to sell 1 million electric cars by 2022.
What about range anxiety? The anxiety that EVs will stutter and die before one hits the charging station is real. Add to it the charging time trauma. Modern electric cars need an entire night to charge; even fast charging stations devour an hour.
Gupta believes the solution lies in lithium-ion batteries and not in lithium-acid batteries. Lithion Powerpacks are lightweight, longer-running and embedded with smart tracking and communication facility. And the swap can take less than 5 minutes - as easy as fixing the nozzle and getting the tank topped.
In the next 5 years, the battery chargers and swappers’ industry will proliferate and by 2030, there will emerge a $150 billion new industry with batteries, solar, charging and swapping stations, motors and drivers, telemetry.
To meet the demand, early this year, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) teamed up LG Chem, a South Korean manufacturer which will supply Lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells based on NMC (Nickel Manganese Cobalt) chemistry with high energy density. Suzuki has planned a Rs 1,151 crore lithium-ion battery plant in Hansalpur, Gujarat, which is slated to be ready by 2020.
So, is the EV dream doable? As I twirled the gangly noodle in the chopstick, Gupta picked the last grape from the custard bowl and returned to the refrain: If it is cheap and good, it will sell. How? I drop the noodle and pick a question. “Because the EV owner no longer needs to invest in a battery. He rents it on a daily basis, does the last mile and swaps it. It is cheap, good. And the future.”
The birth of EV
In the early part of the 20th century, innovators in Hungary, the Netherlands and the United States began fiddling with the idea of a battery-powered vehicle. Robert Anderson, a British inventor, developed the first crude electric carriage.
In 1890, William Morrison, an Iowa-based chemist made the first successful electric car in the United States. The 6-passenger vehicle could hit a top speed of 14 miles per hour. In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the sports car company by the same name, developed an electric car named P1.
In 1908, Henry Ford’s mass-produced affordable and easily available Model T dealt a blow to the electric car. In 1912, the gasoline car cost $ 650 while an electric roadster sold for $1,750.
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.