The looming threat of e-waste behind Bengal’s EV revolution

While the state government has an ambitious plan to roll out 10 lakh electric vehicles in the next five years to curb pollution, it is yet to come up with a strategy to dispose the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that will power these vehicles

Representative photo: iStock

The West Bengal government has set a target to roll out 10 lakh electric vehicles in next five years to curb pollution. But the plan has sparked a new pollution concern as it lacks a proper roadmap to deal with the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power these vehicles.

The government has also announced plans to set up at least 1 lakh battery-charging stations within five years to put in place a proper ecosystem for the new technology with a vehicle-charging point ratio of 8:1.

To implement the ambitious plan Kolkata, Howrah, Asansol and Darjeeling have been earmarked as model electric mobility cities with phase-wise goals to adopt electric vehicles, charging infrastructure and new EV-enabling building codes, according to the Electric Vehicles Policy 2021 prepared by the state’s power department.

The New Town, Kolkata will be the pilot city for the new initiative.

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“Inter-city electrification green routes will be declared with a target to promote inter-city electric mobility penetration for the Kolkata-Asansol and Kolkata-Digha routes. Rapid chargers will be deployed at an average distance of 25 kilometres, catering to electric buses and heavy-duty vehicles,” the policy read.

The West Bengal government’s announcement to have 10 lakh electric vehicles combined across all segments within five years, however, appears ambitious as a similar nationwide electric mobility push by the Centre by incentivising the purchase of electric vehicles has so far failed to evoke encouraging response.

The Centre had launched the second phase of its Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME-2) scheme with a target to incentivise the purchase of 1 million electric two-wheelers, 7,000 electric buses and 55,000 electric and hybrid passenger cars in the three-year period starting April 2019. The scheme has now been extended to March 31, 2024.

The Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicle (SMEV) said sales of EVs in India fell by 20 per cent in the financial year 2020-21 to 2,36,802 units.

West Bengal transport minister Firhad Hakim was confident of achieving the target saying, “We will give more emphasis to electric buses to battle the rising levels of pollution. The replacement will be carried out in phases.”

The policy unveiled within months of EV city Casebook and Policy guide 2021 released in March this year, put Kolkata in the third place among the top global megacities in terms of percentage penetration of e-buses.

According to a 2019 report by the Energy Policy institute at the University of Chicago, Kolkata has the second highest life expectancy loss (seven years) after Delhi among Indian metro cities.

“Kolkata, the city of joy, has run an electric tramway for more than a century. The city is now also taking a leading role to introduce electric buses for public transport,” according to EV city Casebook.

The Casebook prepared by the Urban Foresight in collaboration with the Electric Vehicle Initiative and the International Energy Agency took note of the state-owned West Bengal Transport Corporation’s initiative to its fleet of over 1,200 diesel-guzzling buses with electric vehicles.

It has procured from Tata Motors 80 electric buses in 2019 and another 50 last year. The aim is to increase the number of its fleet of e-buses to 5,000 by 2039 to reduce carbon dioxide emission in the city by 785,560 tons per year, said a transport department official.

Also read: New incentive scheme gives kick-start to electric, hydrogen fuel vehicle industries

The World Bank is helping Kolkata's EV transition with an Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) grant of $250,000, the official said.

The new e-vehicle policy, however, did not elaborate how the government proposes to deal with the dead batteries. The policy simply said one of its targets will be to “recycle and reuse used batteries and dispose of the rejected batteries in an environment-friendly manner to avoid pollution.”

Environmentalists, however, pointed out that unless the electricity to charge the batteries are sourced from renewable energy and recycling industries are set up to take care of e-wastes, the electric mobility push could aggravate the pollution crisis.

“The electric vehicle push will definitely reduce emission of carbon dioxide, but to curb overall pollution and achieve the target of reducing global warming below two degrees Celsius, it is important to avoid sourcing coal-based or oil-based electricity to charge the batteries, which is unlikely in India,” said Dr Dipayan Dey Chair (Research & Planning) South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE).

The share of coal-based thermal power in the country’s energy mix is currently 47 per cent and according to the central government’s policy think-tank NITI Aayog the share will rise to 51 per cent by 2030.

Dey said the e-vehicle push could further increase India’s dependency on thermal power.

He emphasised on proper disposal mechanism to dispose of the lithium-ion batteries that are made of a reactive alkali metal, cautioning that any failure to recycle them properly would lead to a greater crisis in future.

Unlike the lead-acid batteries used in normal cars which are widely recycled, the lithium-ion versions are reportedly not easy to be recycled as it requires dismantling of several hundred individual lithium-ion cells that they are made of. It requires far more advanced technology.

India’s lithium-ion battery recycling capacity is currently negligible, resulting in dumping of most of these e-wastes in landfills. India also does not have adequate legislation to prevent illegal dumping of spent lithium batteries. Approximately 70 per cent of the hazardous waste in a landfill comes from e-waste which is approximately worth $62.5 billion, according to a report by the Observer Research Foundation.

“The arrival of EVs in India offers a unique opportunity for the e-waste sector and it must be addressed at this opportune moment. Otherwise, it can pose environmental and economic challenges in the future. The Battery Guidelines (2001) remain silent on LIBs, lacking any regulatory and policy framework,” the ORF report said.

Dey said to address the problem, the state government should also come up with a separate recycling policy to deal with the spent lithium-ion batteries.

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