Rapid urbanisation and increasing environmental concerns have made it imperative for cities in India to come up with clean transport solutions. While clean compressed natural gas (CNG) buses are already plying in several cities, a push is being given to adoption of electric buses (e-buses) that are even more sustainable in the long run. To increase uptake, a policy push in the form of a reduction in the goods and service tax (GST) rate from 12 per cent to 5 per cent and the introduction of subsidies under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme have been introduced. Backed by these incentives, bus operators in cities such as Delhi and Bengaluru, among others, have planned procurement of e-buses, while Pune has already started commercial operations of e-buses on select routes. However, issues related to lack of charging infrastructure, inadequate parking space in metropolitan cities, cost per km of operations, operating range, etc., create hindrances in its faster adoption. In this regard, measures such as the right mix of charging infrastructure, consideration of life-cycle costs and close coordination between bus operators and vendors is the need of the hour.
In 2014, the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) had announced plans to induct e-buses in the city. After a delay of almost four years, two separate tenders were finally floated in October 2019 for the procurement of 300 AC e-buses (of 12 metre length), and for 56 non-AC e-buses (of 9 metre length) to offer metro feeder services, both under the FAME II scheme. However, the plans failed to gain momentum as tenders lacked bidder interest. For 300 e-buses, only two bidders – Olectra Greentech Limited (formerly Goldstone Infratech Limited) together with Chinese technical partner BYD and Tata Motors had submitted bids. However, Tata Motors did not provide documents making BYD-Olectra the sole bidder in the running. As a result, BMTC is now expected to re-issue bids, delaying procurement even further. Similarly, the tender for the procurement of 56 non-AC buses could not attract vendor interest.
Apart from this, the biggest challenge that the BMTC faces in adoption of e-buses is absence of charging infrastructure. Though Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited plans to install charging stations for two-, three- and four-wheeler vehicles at 107 places in Bangalore city, the transport agency has to bear the electricity cost of providing 11 kV power for charging e-buses at the depot. This costs approximately Rs 30 million per depot (a total of 45 depots have been planned). With this, the per km cost of operating these clean buses increases as compared to diesel buses, making their deployment costlier.
Another operator, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), which has the largest operating CNG fleet in the country, is apprehensive about operating e-buses due to lack of sufficient experience. Nevertheless, the bus operator, aiming to mitigate pollution, had applied for the acquisition of e-buses under FAME II and about 1,000 buses were sanctioned. Of these, initially only 300 buses are being acquired by DTC and another 100 e-buses will be inducted by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation to provide last-mile connectivity in the north and east clusters of the city. In October 2019, bids from bus manufacturers for supplying 300 buses (12 metre length) were invited under the opex model on a public-private partnership basis. As of January 2020, two vendors have been shortlisted, of which one will be finalised shortly. As per plans, the buses will be procured by mid-2020. However, parking in a congested city like Delhi will be an issue. To begin with, three depots have been identified. But, with the plan to induct 1,000 buses, more space will be required. Transport agency Delhi Integrated Multimodal Transit System had also floated tenders to procure 385 e-buses in March 2019. However, this is yet to be finalised.
Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited is the only bus operator that has commenced commercial operations of e-buses in the city. As per plans, a total of 150 e-buses 25 midi (9 metre length) and 125 for bus rapid transit (12 metre length) are to be procured. Of the total buses, 60 per cent belong to the Pune Municipal Corporation while the remaining 40 per cent will be operated by the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation.
In this regard, bids were invited in September 2018 and in about six months’ time it finally took off. The contract was awarded to Olectra Greentech Limited on a gross cost contract basis with a 10-year period. In November 2018, the first trial run of the e-bus was conducted, after which, on February 9, 2019, commercial operations began. So far, 108 buses have been procured that are being operated. Apart from this commendable achievement, the city is the first to have dedicated depots for e-buses at Bhekrai and Nigdi.
The slow uptake of e-buses in India is attributable to several factors. The biggest impediment so far is the lack of charging infrastructure. Further, there is a lack of subsidy for setting up of charging stations inside the depot and, as a result, this increases the per km cost of operations. Apart from this, in the absence of tax breaks and subsidies, the earnings per km of an e-bus are almost similar to those of diesel buses, questioning the feasibility of the former. Besides, there are several other operational issues which crop up once the buses are put to use. Spares, for instance, need to be ensured to overcome lag time. Also, land for maintenance and parking of e-buses is to be provided by the corporation, which also adds to cost of operations. Currently, as only select vendors manufacture e-buses, the capital cost of procuring is high. That said, the subsidy amount for procurement of buses under the FAME II scheme has been reduced from Rs 10 million per bus to Rs 5.5 million, further creating a burden on operators.
Key recommendations and the way forward
For faster roll-out of e-buses and to drive operations, the right charging strategy is required. For this, a mix of on board and off board charging infrastructure such as depot charging (which is mostly suitable for overnight charging), terminal charging (or opportunity charging) and flash charging (for top-up charging that happens in 20-30 seconds) can be used. Depot charging stations alone cannot be feasible for multi-purpose usage like charging of two-, three- and four-wheelers. Further, consideration of life cycle value (which takes into account both capital expenditure and operating expenditure) is essential to gauge the actual operating cost.
Apart from this, coordination between road transport corporations and manufacturers is essential to introduce e-buses as these are social goods. Both parties need to come up with a workable plan to go ahead rather than focusing only on profits. Another important measure is assessment of traffic risks and peak time management to design the right network and reap maximum benefits. Finally, cost of ownership, which is a key factor while considering procurement, can be significantly reduced with expansion of the e-bus fleet rather than plying just a few buses for which the entire infrastructure has to be created.
Based on a panel discussion among Manoj Kumar, Managing Director, Delhi Transport Corporation; K. Santosh Babu, Director, Information & Technology, BMTC; Vikas Ranjan Dahiya, Assistant Vice President, Olectra Greentech (representing the Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal); and Rajesh Saha, Regional Sales Manager, ABB Power Grid Malaysia, at a recent India Infrastructure conference