India’s EV Charging Roll Out, ‘Patla Pin’ Magic, And More Challenges

Highlights :

  • A deep on the ground report detailing the many challenges in India’s EV charging landscape.

For a nation that embraced the mobile phone with breakneck speed, pricey prices notwithstanding, the heyday of Nokia phones in the late 90s and through early 2000s became synonymous with the thin-pin charger, which was very popular and ubiquitous at the time. Such was its ubiquity that it was assumed that everyone or every home had one and it would be available on request. At a time when there were no power banks, this Nokia charger helped overcome ‘charge anxiety’ like nothing else. What followed next was a surfeit of aftermarket chargers and early versions of power banks adapted to the Nokia thin pin. This was a factor that propelled both brand Nokia and mobile adoption. Cut to 2022 and we are in the midst of another transition, this time in transport. The EV transition. Ease of charging has possibly overtaken range anxiety that was so common when owning an EV. Issues beyond availability, ranging from exorbitant rates when charging via public chargers, the quality of power supplied, and issues with earthing or polarity have plagued buyers.

Inter-city trips are planned around the availability of chargers en route as seen on the many apps that show available chargers and, then too, the boot is often packed with extension wire, earth ground rod, and even a single-phase meter to convince a plug point donor to be paid by the units consumed.

As an EV owner said: “I have become an electrician after owning an EV. I now know more about kilowatts, polarity, earthing standards, and safe charging habits, and all in a good way but it still is a huge headache.”

In India, Mahindra had a great head start with electric vehicles after it bought Reva and also with its eVerito, India’s first electric sedan. But it was Tata Motors that truly changed the game with the launch of its popular and current leader Nexon EV in 2020 that successfully changed the game for EV acceptance in India by riding on the craze for SUVs in any shape and form. Tata Motors launched its Tigor EV in 2019 but that was available only for fleet operators at that time.

These EVs helped bring to the fore the challenges with range anxiety as public EV chargers were still scant. And when available, the quality of power infra and the challenges it threw up like issues with availability of working fast chargers, voltage, and earthing. So much so that some of the early adopters said that they had to take a crash course in fundaments of electrical supply and wiring to overcome the last mile plug challenges.

One EV owner even came up with his unique workaround for all such after his travel experience: an EV travel charging kit that he has now available for anyone interested. And yes, the kit also has a towing rope.

Then came the Tatas with their juggernaut. The in-tandem play of Tata Motors and sister company Tata Power was in full display as they went ahead with installing the standard AC slow and fast chargers and high-speed DC chargers to somewhat replicate the success Nokia had with their omnipresent ‘patla pin’ chargers, making the standard charging protocol available across homes of owners and across the country.

India follows a charging standard for electric vehicles and is categorised under various levels and divided into Level 1 (AC and DC), Level 2 (AC), and Level 3 (AC and DC) charging stations. And for connectors, it has the IEC 60309, Type 2, CHAdeMO, and then CCS 1 and 2. The popular Nexon EV supports CCS 2 charging as the car connector and with the 3-pin wall connector adapter as part of the standard kit.

Challenges with EV charging

Many EV users say they no longer worry about getting stuck without charge as public charging infra has improved along with the support that EV manufacturers or even private players now provide. Innovations like a power bank on wheels for that emergency boost required when necessary have also helped. But what remains a huge deciding factor for EV adopters is the option available for a safe and working charging solution at their homes.

Most car owners in India park their vehicles on roads or at a distance from their homes. This includes those who live in independent flats or gated communities. There is also a challenge with the meter installed as often the sanctioned load is much less than what is required for even the slow charger that ensures a full battery with overnight charging. Then comes the issue of load shedding, low voltage or the dreaded earthing, and polarity issues which have meant no or very slow charging or the charging gun getting locked.

Some owners have overcome their home charger challenges by installing a charger at the home of neighbours closest to the spot where they park their cars or requesting the shopkeeper when they park their car for the night in front of their shop to provide a plug point.

There is also an issue with installing chargers at housing societies as many resident welfare associations or RWAs don’t allow individual chargers because of sanctioned load issues or distance from the meter to take the wire for installation. Also, some societies charge a higher flat rate even for EV charging when some states have the option of subsidized rates via a separate EV meter.

Push for EV charging infrastructure

For all the problems electric vehicles solve for the environment, the savings per kilometer in fuel and maintenance costs remain decisive. Roadblocks with convenient charging is thus an issue seeking a solution.

With EVs already much more cheaper on a per km basis, the biggest challenge in pushing mass adoption was the upfront cost of ownership. Till now, passenger electric cars were available for upwards of the psychological Rs 10 lakh sticker price.

That changed with the launch of the Tiago.ev in September from Tata Motors for an introductory price of Rs 8.49 lakhs ex-showroom. A huge psychological move given that the car sits below the 10-lakh mark and is a hatchback based on a proven and high safety-rated version of its popular ICE model. The response has been strong at over 20,000 bookings, and deliveries start in January 2023.

Thus, an affordable passenger EV car joins the growing range of electric 2-wheelers, 3-wheelers, and 4-wheelers already running across India. Taken together with the success of electric scooters – battery issues and fire incidents notwithstanding – rickshaws deployed for logistics and public transport, cars in cab fleets, and then the EV buses in state[1]owned public transport; mass adoption is slowly increasing pushed by the support of subsidies and tax breaks at showrooms — and for charging.

India’s federal and state governments have deployed many incentives to encourage faster adoption. Not just for vehicles but for charging support too.

preparing for an ev journey

How To Prepare For A Long EV Journey

State governments like in the capital Delhi and Maharashtra have policies in place which subsidises the installation of chargers. In Delhi, private distribution company or discom BSES gives a subsidy of Rs 6000 per charger for a 3.3 kW charger and Rs 18,000 per charger for an AC 1 charger that can be installed at homes and semi-public places like housing societies, kirana stores, and commercial properties. Caveat: the subsidy is for a maximum of 20 EV charging points or 20% of total parking slots whichever is lesser for semi[1]public places and one unit per home and capped at 30,000 units.

Also, some state electricity boards and their distribution partners like BSES in Delhi and Adani Electricity in Maharashtra offer a separate EV meter with a subsidized rate to support the push. In Delhi, BSES charges Rs 4.50 per unit (excluding levies) with an exemption in fixed charges.

Can battery swapping help overcome anxiety?

Anant Badjatya, CEO, Sun Mobility

Anant Badjatya, CEO, Sun Mobility

Anant Badjatya, CEO of e-mobility firm Sun Mobility, cites one challenge among many other challenges that crop up while setting up 3.3 kW chargers.

“Lack of adequate infrastructure poses a huge challenge in setting up 3.3 kW chargers especially when most of the urban population stays in highly dense apartment complexes with limited control on the parking arrangement.” The way out of this, he says, is having a “robust public charging infrastructure (for both plug charging and battery swapping).”

Votaries for battery swapping claim that on the one hand it solves the predicament of setting up charging stations and on the other, it is easier, more convenient and also more pocket friendly for the user.

ankit mittal, Co-founder & CEO, Sheru

Ankit Mittal, Co-founder & CEO, Sheru

Ankit Mittal, Co-founder & CEO of Sheru, makes the case, especially for the two-wheeler category. “For commercial two and three-wheelers, we do not see charging infrastructure to be the right solution. We think that battery swapping is the more relevant solution as it solves multiple problems. And, in the case of personal two-wheelers, we do not see the requirement of public charging, since the majority of the consumers we see consume almost 60-70 km per day. And in India, 70% of the trips are 5-6 km. In Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, this percentage is still higher; in Tier 2, it’s 80%, and in Tier 3, it’s 90%.

Badjatya backs Mittal’s view. “Battery swapping solution makes the best use of real estate and available electricity infrastructure as it uses smaller swappable batteries enabling the daily required driving range through multiple swaps a day.”

Badjatya points out that “DISCOMs in Delhi and many other states have been offering their premises along with the required power connection to private charging and battery swapping players to set up their charging or swapping equipment. Government agencies such as EESL, DMRCL, BMRCL, etc. are offering their premises or enabling partnerships with state and central government offices to leverage their infrastructure for setting up charging infrastructure. In parallel, private players have been investing in setting up the electricity infrastructure to install multiple charging or swapping equipment to achieve economies of scale.”

Battery swapping then is limited to two and three-wheelers as EV cars on sale currently in India are Generation 1 EVs meaning ICE cars tweaked to their current EV avatar. This was possible by making use of the space in the engine bay to fit the motor and the space left after taking out the fuel tank and in some models the space under the rear seat and part of the boot space. This then makes them unfit for swapping.

Role of private players and startups

Many private firms have received investor backing and are working with policymakers and enablers to solve India’s every-few-miles charging issues.

India’s think tank Niti Aayog’s e-Amrit policy stipulates that “at least one EV charging station shall be available in a grid of 3 Km X 3 Km. Furthermore, one EV charging station shall be set up at every 25 Km on both sides of highways/roads.”

It also says that “public EV charging stations would be required to tie up with at least one online Network Service Provider to enable advance remote/online booking of charging slots by EV owners.”

Sandeep Goyal, CEO & Founder, Pyramid Electronics

Sandeep Goyal, CEO & Founder, Pyramid Electronics

Though the announcement has been met with enthusiasm from industry players, turning it into a reality is riddled with doubts, as indicated by Sandeep Goyal, CEO & Founder of Pyramid.

“Charging stations at every 3 Km will be required to achieve the target for electric vehicles. Charging time cannot be reduced to less than 30 minutes, so we need more chargers for number of vehicles on road. The spike in demand also should utilise solar+storage to maintain grid stability possibly.”

Technology, rapid improvement in the quality of power supply, and the financial benefits of installing a charger is now building a robust charging infrastructure in India perhaps making a charger available every kilometer, more than the presence of any fossil fuel pump now — pretty soon.

But there is a problem.

Most EV manufacturers provide a basic slow charger for the home added to the cost of the vehicle. But with more EVs now coming with longer range, the time taken to charge a vehicle with a higher battery pack via the slow home charger takes more hours now.

According to Tata Motors, it will take the Nexon EV Prime with the 30.2 kW battery pack 9 hours and 10 minutes to charge from SOC 10% to 90% from any 15 A plug point. And for the Nexon EV Max with its 40.5 kWh battery, it will take 15 hours to charge from SOC 10% to 90% from any 15 A plug point.

charger specification courtesy

Imagine the pain if the vehicle is parked at home for more than the theoretical overnight home charging rendering it useless when you may need it the most.

Tata Motors and its partner Tata Power do have the option of a 7.2 kW AC fast charger that you can buy for your home but that is an extra cost and also has challenges with sanctioned load and distance from the meter.

This means a higher upfront cost of ownership and often no choice for owners who don’t have reserved parking or a spot for installing a safe home charger. The alternative then for those who still want to own an EV is public chargers, possibly at a much more expensive per unit charging rate.

To solve this, companies like Magenta, Kazam, Statiq, Fortum, Exicom, Delta, ABB, Zeon, Charge+Zone, and Tata Power are adding heft and tailwinds to India’s push for mass EV adoption. They are setting up charging infra alone or in partnership with OEMs to provide a charger every few miles if not kms yet.

Many of these companies have tied up with malls, office owners, commercial space owners, gated communities and housing societies, dhabas, fuel pump owners, highway resorts and food courts, hotels, and land owners at popular holiday destinations to setup fast chargers in the OPEX mode and monetized via higher per unit rates.

The at-home charging rates of say just above the subsidised Rs 5 per unit in Delhi for charging via a 3.3 kW or 7.2 kW charger vs Rs 8 to Rs 11 for charging via the 3.3kW public charger and Rs 11 to Rs 15 for charging via the 7.5 kW public charger. For DC fast charging which can charge the Nexon EV Max in 50 minutes from SOC 0% to 80% via the 50 kW charger, the per unit charges are much more and at some places even above Rs 20 per unit but then that is an occasional need and blessing.

While still cheaper than an ICE vehicle, it does take the edge off what should be a very convenient experience.

Many owners have said that they don’t mind paying the premium for fast charging once in a while but not practical as the default charging method. Also, often these chargers are not free or will show free on the app but when they reach, they see that there is a vehicle charging or the unit has technical issues.

No standard cost of charging an issue

As of now, there is absence of a standard pricing structure for public EV charging and no price mechanism or regulation in place. For a slow charger, the rates can be between Rs 8 to Rs 12 per unit and for fast charging, the rate may go even north of Rs 25 per unit. While at home a user can achieve charging at Rs 7 per unit from his domestic connection, the charging rates outside of home are expensive.

To address this gap, state electricity boards need to look at a mechanism to fix standardised charging rates which should clearly define the max per unit charging rate along with a cap on service charges. And this has to be applicable for both slow and fast charging stations.

The push to reduce charging rates

Statiq is one company trying to tackle the high cost problem. It has now come up with an ad-supported 22 kW charging unit called the AdWall that they say is being offered for free to housing societies and priced on a cost basis for charging. No brainer then that their revenue model is ad-supported to underwrite the cost of the setup and on the per unit cost.

solar charging station

Hidden costs and last-mile surprises

Hidden costs like installing the home charger taking into account distance from the meter to the charger can be a real dampener.

Then comes the issue with the many apps available that show the location of chargers. Their maps are used to locate an EV charging station nearby but often there is no promise that the charger will be free or working by the time the vehicle reaches the charger. To add to the woes, there may be another car getting charged or there is no power supply and the waiting time may be long.

For those who have installed the chargers at their premises, there are additional costs to be incurred like on transformer installation for fast chargers, maintenance, recovery of cost or cost of maintaining the facility and added services which they then need to recover.

Benefits of community charging

OEM manufacturers vouch for overnight charging at-home as the best way to charge the vehicle but it comes at the cost of your convenience, thanks to sanctioned domestic meter loads. Most domestic meters come with a sanction load of 4 to 6 kW. While overnight EV charging is the holy grail for at-home charging, in summer it may not be the most ideal solution as you may have to switch off your power guzzling machines like ACs for overnight charging to happen if you do not increase your sanction load, which is easier said than done.

The way out of this challenge is community charging provisions so that the user does not have to increase the sanction load of their home and still enjoy the convenience of overnight slow charging at the subsidised or at best the unit rate at which they consume electricity at their home.

The other challenges

Consumer awareness when it comes to EV related policies and available subsidies remains an issue. Discom subsidies for installing chargers, or adding a separate EV meter at subsidised per unit rates, and other benefits like no RTO registration costs for EVs, a subsidy on the rate of interest for loans and then a tax break on the loan available till March 2023 are largely unknown for most customers. Complicated paperwork to avail these benefits don’t help either.

But for all that, the shift is underway, perhaps the greatest indication that users only expect things to improve. They deserve to be vindicated, for the sake of our environment at the very least.

Note: Even as we filed this story, news came that the government has set a 2024 deadline for standardising all mobile and tablet chargers with type C chargers. A move expected to save resources and add convenience. Perhaps a lesson in there for EV charging?

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