Clean Buses: Moving towards energy-efficient urban transportation

The urban transportation sector in India is gradually adopting cleaner modes of operation to achieve net-zero targets. The government is pushing for energy-efficient bus rapid transit (BRT) systems with lower carbon emissions. This includes the promotion of electric, compressed natural gas (CNG) and hydrogen-driven buses. The growing rapid and smart charging infrastructure has further contributed to the increased adoption of electric buses in India. As of August 3, 2023, there we­re a total of around 2.83 million electric vehicles (EVs) in the country. Moreover, the Ministry of Road Trans­port and Highways launched Toyota’s pilot flexi-fuel, hybrid EV project in October 2022, which will run on 20-100 per cent blended ethanol and electric power. The world’s first fully ethanol-powered car equipp­ed with a flexi-fuel engine was launched in August 2023.

Electric buses

The use of electric buses has gained traction across India in recent times. In August 2023, the government approved the PM-eBus Sewa scheme. It would add 10,000 electric buses to city bus operations on the public-private partnership model. Investments to the tune of Rs 576.13 billion are expected under the scheme. Of this, financial support of Rs 200 billion will be provided by the central government.

As of March 2023, 2,435 electric buses ha­ve been deployed across various states and uni­on territories under the Faster Adoption and Ma­nufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicle (FAME) scheme Phase II. Similarly, the National e-Bus Programme launched in 2022 targets to promote the use of electric buses with the dep­loyment of a total of 50,000 electric buses in India.

State-wise, Delhi is pioneering the uptake of electric buses and aims to have 8,000 electric buses as part of its public transportation system by 2025, electrifying nearly 80 per cent of the total fleet. Furthermore, the Delhi Trans­port Corporation signed an agreement with a subsidiary of Tata Motors in 2022 for operating 1,500 electric buses in Delhi. This has been further supported by the collaboration between Tata Motors and its fully owned subsidiary, TML CV Mobility Solutions Limited. The latter will supply, operate and maintain th­ese 1,500, 12 metre, low-floor, air-conditioned (AC) electric bu­ses for a period of 12 years as a part of this agreement. Similarly, Tata Motors has also supplied more than 730 electric buses across various cities in India, which have recorded travel of more than 55 million km. Further, the transportation department plans to add approximately 4,000 electric buses by 2025. These will include both 12 metre and 9 metre buses that are reported to be supplied by PMI Electro, Switch Mobility and JBM. PMI Electro is to deliver 2,026 electric buses. Delhi also ranks first in terms of the deployment of electric buses and flagged off 400 new electric buses in Septem­ber 2023, bringing the total number of running electric buses to 800. An agreement was also signed with Switch Mobility, Ashok Leyland’s EV arm, for 950 low-floor electric bu­ses. Contracts were also signed with JBM Auto and PMI Electro Mobility, which would see the deployment of 1,040 electric buses. In another development, Kerala witness­ed the addition of 60 electric buses in August 2023, with 53 more to be added soon.

Electric buses are also being promoted under smart city projects. A viable smart electric bus project was launched in the Pune Smart City programme, under which 150 electric buses have been procured in the first phase. These include 125 BRT AC electric bu­ses of 12 metres and 25 non-BRT AC electric buses of 9 metres of Pune Mahanagar Pari­vahan Maha­man­dal Limi­ted (PMPML). For this, the Pune Municipal Cor­po­ration has established a charging station at Bhekrai Nagar with a capacity to charge 90 bu­ses. Its EV cell aims at dep­loying 650 and 1,000 electric buses by 2023 and 2025 respectively. Further, a dedicated mega charging station will also be constructed by PMPML authorities at the Manjri-Budruk-She­wal­ewadi depot. This would serve the rising demand for electric buses in the future. Cur­r­ently, 458 electric buses are operated by PMPML. Nearly 192 are expected to be added by the end of 2023. In June 2023, 20 electric buses were flagged off in Shimla, taking the total to 70 buses under operation. The Hima­chal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) also plans to replace its fleet of 1,500 buses with electric buses in a phased manner. HRTC targets electrification of 80 per cent of its fleet by 2026.

CNG buses

The use of CNG buses is gradually taking shape. Cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have witnessed some active measures for their adoption. The Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking will include 400 CNG buses back to its fleet in Mumbai. Of these, 100 buses have already been plied as of March 2023 with repair work and necessary checks. Further, around 25 new CNG buses are planned to be added to Thane’s bus fleet by the Thane Municipal Transport, for which about Rs 58 million has been received for the purchase and the deployment process has begun.

In a related development, 100 new CNG-run buses have also been launched in Guwa­hati, Assam, in January 2023. This initiative has been taken under the Smart Cities Mission. The first CNG fuel station has also been inaugurated in the city to support this development. The buses will be operated by the Assam State Transport Corporation and are equipped with air-conditioning, fire detection, global positioning systems and several other features. Si­milarly, the entire fleet of diesel buses of the Chandigarh Transport Undertaking will be re­trofitted with CNG kits. Meanwhile, Bhopal City Link Limited is expected to add 50 new CNG buses to its fleet.

Hydrogen-based buses

Despite efforts being made to evolve their use through various initiatives, the development of hydrogen-based buses is at a nascent stage. India’s first indigenously developed hydrogen fuel cell bus developed by Kirtaney Pandit Information Technologies Limited and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was launched in Pune in August 2022.

In a notable development, Indian Oil Corpo­ration Limited has launched a trial run of two hydrogen buses in Delhi in September 2023. The fleet size is expected to reach 15 by 2023-end. These buses are being indigenously manufactured and developed under a joint venture of Indian Oil Corporation Limited and Tata Motors. The fuel cells would be imported for their operation. Following this trial run, routes in other states may also use these buses such as Delhi-Agra, Vadodara-Kevadia (Gujarat) and Thiruvananthapuram Airport-Thiruvanantha­puram City Centre (Kerala).

In another development, Olectra Green­te­ch Limited has developed a hydrogen bus, whi­ch will be launched by 2024 in association with its technology partner, Reliance. These buses would travel up to 400 km with a single hydrogen fill. Additionally, two MoUs have been sig­ned by the National Hydro Electric Power Corporation (NHPC) for the development of pilot green hydrogen technologies in Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh. As per these MoUs, hydrogen generated in Kargil will be utilised as fuel cells capable of running two buses for up to eight hours in the local area of the region. The hydrogen production would be upscaled on a commercial scale in Ladakh by NHPC for supplying the required hydrogen to many sectors including transportation.

The road ahead

The introduction of new transit systems such as MetroNeo and light rail transit has reduced the demand for BRT systems. The adoption of electric, CNG and hydrogen buses can be proliferated to achieve a more sustainable footprint of the transportation sector in the future. Backed by government support, programmes such as FAME II and the National e-Bus Program­me are ex­pec­ted to have a positive impact on the augmentation of electric buses in the country.

However, the growth of clean mobility mo­des in India has several hurdles. Owing to high capital investments, the demand for electric buses needs a complementary base for funding and financing by the central government. FAME Phase II can be taken forward effectively with a safety and quality check of buses. Similarly, hydrogen and CNG buses ne­ed to be made more economically viable for wide­spread adoption.