I do wish that I could change the last three words of this title to 'Yes, it’s here'. Alas, that is not to be.
For years now, we have been shown visions of a clean, pollution-free environment based on cost-efficient ‘alternative energy’ for private and commercial vehicles. Here are some examples:
- Hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. Yes, Toyota has been making such a car for decades, but sales have been abysmally low. As of now, hydrogen power is completely impractical from the point of view of logistics, apart from being costly.
- Bio-fuel vehicles. Yes, ethanol can replace petrol up to 20%, but not more, unless cars are revamped. As for bio-diesel, not much has happened. In any case, replacing fossil fuels with ethanol will mean diverting a huge chunk of agricultural output away from food which will not work. If inedible vegetation can be used to produce ethanol, bio-fuels may progress; but that is far, far away as of now.
- New types of batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are the main source of power for electric vehicles today, but lithium is scarce and expensive, while its production and disposal are potentially very polluting. Sodium batteries are ‘under development’, and will not be commercially available for some time.
- Swapping batteries in electric vehicles. This is hard to do in cars for a number of reasons, though it may be possible for two-wheelers. However, we have heard nothing after the initial announcement.
Why all this hype, then? Why do ministers keep presenting pipe dreams of freedom from petrol and diesel?
The truth is that petroleum products will be needed for many years to come. India consumes more than 220 million tons of petroleum products annually, and this number is growing at 10%pa (per annum). Replacing even a small fraction of it is a very, very difficult task, especially because the target number will keep galloping ahead while we are trying to reduce it.
Does this mean that it is a hopeless endeavour?
No, of course not. New technologies are evolving all the time and there is reason to hope that more than one of them will click in a big way. Researchers will keep working, and entrepreneurs will keep trying until this happens.
In the meantime, there are several interim measures that can be taken towards the ultimate goal of being carbon-neutral and non-polluting in our energy consumption.
The first—tighten pollution control norms. The ‘PUC’(pollution under control) pollution tests are a farce. When I took my car to get the PUC done, I heard an offer being made to the owner of a diesel car which was belching smoke: a certificate with data from a ‘clean’ car – just Rs100 extra. Frequent spot checks, and cancelling the licence of such PUC testers, will reduce this type of fraud.
The second – invest heavily in public transport and put restrictions on using private cars during busy hours. Many decades ago, Singapore had ‘Dracula plates’ – cars which could only be driven at night. These cars were charged a much lower registration fee than normal cars, whose registration fee was six times the cost of the car.
The third – ban cars aged over five years and having BS-4 ratings, from being used in towns with populations above 1mn.
The fourth – slap a pollution tax on all private cars and two-wheelers. Yes, Mr Nitin Gadkari did propose such a tax on diesel cars, but he hurriedly back-tracked when howls of protest arose. There has to be more resolve, or else there should be silence.
The fifth – invite our engineers to find ways to retro-fit popular car models, such as the Maruti Wagon-R and Dzire, with a small lithium-ion battery (about 3 KWHr) and an electric motor, thus converting them to hybrid cars. This will improve fuel economy significantly and reduce pollution.
You may well scoff at some, even all, of these suggestions as being impractical. You may be right, because they may require paying a price, in economic as well as political terms, which the public, and the government, are not willing to pay.
However, there may be other solutions which could put the brakes, to some degree, on the galloping increase in fossil fuel consumption and thereby the amount of pollution that has to be dealt with, before the real solutions can be found.
Nevertheless, three things are clear:
- There is no immediate solution at hand for replacing fossil fuels and, hence, there is no point in announcing that we will do this and that, and voilà— success will be achieved. This is pure hype, and if the government continues to engage in such fantasies, it does so at the peril of eroding its own credibility.
- Every effort must be made to accelerate and expand all types of searches for alternatives to fossil fuels. To this end, the government must encourage and incentivise research because, if we do succeed, it will have global benefits.
- We must find interim solutions, albeit involving some cost, to put some curbs on the rate at which fossil fuel consumption is increasing.
I will leave you with an amusing story.
The ‘great horse manure crisis of 1894’ – New York city had over 1 lakh horses which produced more than 1,000tonns of manure daily. ‘The Times’ of Britain predicted that in 50 years’ time “every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
To everyone’s great relief, this pollution ended soon thereafter, upon the arrival of the ‘saviour of humanity’.
Can you guess who, or what, this saviour was?
The petrol-powered automobile.
Yes, the world does go around.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)