Dirty Electric

Dirty Electric

31st Oct 2017 4:38 pm

With electrics, we will just be replacing diesel with coal. Crazy!


Can the electric car seriously damage the environment? On the face of it, this is a preposterous question. It is widely known today that electric cars are squeaky clean. Badged zero-emission vehicles, they consume nothing but electricity. Politicians in India want manufactures to produce only electric cars by 2030. Britain has a deadline of 2040, and the French have announced something similar.

Conventional wisdom, of course, is wrong. So just how clean are electric cars? Let’s dispense with the hype and the hoopla and get down to facts. What most people tend to forget is that electric cars don’t make any power, they only consume it. This is a fundamental difference. Understand it and you will understand the issue. So when you compare a petrol or diesel car with an electric, remember to attach a power station to it in your mind. Got the picture? Good.

Now this electricity has to come from somewhere; and that is problem number one. Yes, there are places in the world where electricity is being produced cleanly. But today, here in India, and in the foreseeable future production of electricity is the problem not the solution. Get this: 60-70 percent of our power today, depending on who you ask, still comes from coal. Even getting it down to 30-40 percent will be near impossible due to the rising demand. And add approximately six million electric car to it every year by 2030 and the load will just skyrocket.

Now, for years the electric car lobby has been saying an electric powertrain is so efficient it is not too far off a petrol-powered car, even when powered by a coal-electric plant! Thing is, our coal plants are nowhere near as efficient as they are in the developed world and, importantly, does anyone anywhere make more fuel efficient cars than we do in India? Allow me to answer that one, the simple answer is a big NO. Our average national fuel efficiency is probably at the other end of the scale when compared to the US. So the real-world gap between an efficient IC engine and a coal-powered electric is likely to be significant. And what’s changed recently is that there are loads and loads of studies which are finding out that the environmental impact of electric cars is much more than earlier estimated.

But that apart, the sad truth is that India, with its heavy coal use, is currently the worst place in the world to run an electric. And this, will take many decades to change. Yes, yes, the electric car is the future, we absolutely have to embrace it and using a device like a Tesla Powerwall and solar panels to provide power is super clean and just brilliant. But until we can do that or introduce cleaner electricity into our grid, the changeover to electric cars will be a colossal waste of everyone’s blood, sweat and tears. Think about it, we’ll just be replacing diesel with coal, and that’s just plain crazy. One thing’s for sure, engineers should be deciding when to go all electric, not politicians. 


Shapur Kotwal

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Deputy editor at Autocar India.

Shapur is at the forefront of the magazine's extensive road testing activities and oversees the test instrumentation and data acquisition. Shapur has possibly the most experience among all road testers in the country.

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