Mayur Roy, a 31-year-old businessman from Cuttack in Odisha, bought an electric scooter (a two-wheeler) earlier this year, with an intention to move towards a non-polluting mode of transport. He uses it in the city for commuting and is pleased with the savings in fuel charges as compared to petrol vehicles. He wants others in his family and friends to also switch to electric vehicles and contribute to the clean fuel transition.

However, recent cases of fires in electric vehicles have raised concerns among many of his friends who were earlier keen on switching to EVs.

“I bought an electric scooter to save the expenditure on fuel and contribute to cutting down pollution,” Roy told Mongabay-India. “I charge it at home and, so far, I have been comfortably using for commuting. But the recent incidents of EVs catching fire have raised alarms. Many of my friends who were earlier keen to buy EVs are now sceptical.”

It is estimated that around 7,000 electric scooters have been recalled in the last year due to fire incidents after the Indian government asked manufacturers to voluntarily consider recalling alleged faulty models.

India, however, continues to be bullish about the future of electric vehicles. Recently, the NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s think-tank, proposed a battery swapping policy that envisions a new ecosystem with the battery as a service model which, among other things, also touches upon concerns about safety standards for batteries.

In February, during the Budget session of the Parliament, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government’s intention to come up with a battery swapping policy – a demand that was being made by users and experts alike.

At present, people using electric vehicles have to either charge their vehicles at home or rely on public charging infrastructure, which is not widespread. But the proposed battery swapping policy envisages a system without in-built batteries to reduce the upfront cost that allows the users to use battery swapping stations to use batteries as a service on a subscription/payment basis without actually owning them.

A paid public charging point at a petrol pump in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/ Mongabay

To ensure high safety standards, the draft policy mandates the use of only Advanced Chemistry Cell batteries or those which have either equivalent performance or more against the earlier prescribed battery norms under the union government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles in India scheme. It also talks about the compatibility of different components of batteries to ensure interoperability for the end-users.

The draft policy also talks about the use of a Battery Management System for efficient battery monitoring, data analysis, and safety. It said that the manufacturer of the batteries “shall ensure that appropriate Battery Management System is in place to protect the battery from conditions such as thermal runaway.” The Battery Management System ensures that it is not used outside of its safety limit and monitors battery health.

Meanwhile, the draft policy also asks the battery operators to ensure data sharing with different stakeholders relating to its life, performance, history of usage and others besides seeking unique identification numbers for the batteries and their operators for better monitoring. It also talks about incentives for the battery operators, subsidies and puts the onus of grievance redressal on the battery operators besides the provision of supervising authorities. The last date for submitting comments on the proposed policy is June 5.

It also wants the states to consider expediting electricity connections, concessions in electricity connections for battery charging stations and also concessions on land availability for BSS and Battery Charging Stations.

India has seen an upward trend in the sales of EVs. In March, the Union Minister for Road Transport Nitin Gadkari told Parliament that so far there are about 1.76 million electric vehicles in the country and 1,742 public charging stations. It is estimated that these numbers would increase exponentially with a serious focus on increasing the growth of EVs. According to official data, there are already 42 operational battery swapping stations at the retail outlets of Oil Marketing Companies.

To further boost EVs growth, the Indian government has announced a National Programme for Advanced Chemistry Cell to localise the production of ACC batteries in the country to reduce imports. It targets a manufacturing capacity of 50-gigawatt hour with an investment of Rs 45,000 crores in the next few years.

Safety issues

Experts, who are working on the issues related to batteries, claimed that the draft policy covers several aspects related to fire safety mitigation measures but precise details on battery safety standards are not yet addressed.

Rahul Lamba, founder of Bangalore-based The Energy Company told Mongabay India, “The draft policy is now very broad in nature.”

“It touched upon the battery standards too,” Lamba said. “It talked about standards for connectors which are crucial in a thermal runaway – which were not discussed in earlier government documents. However, there are other problems with the electric vehicle sector which need to be fixed.”

“For instance, many battery manufacturers in India do not manufacture Battery Management System and instead import it and rebrand and sell it together without proper integrating and testing of the Battery Management System,” Lamba said. “Such a practice should be penalised and local Battery Management System manufacturing should be promoted.” Lamba’s company develops battery packs and supports the energy ecosystem.

Thermal runaway is the degradation of batteries due to overheating. Lamba said that while some of the accepted international standards for battery checkups are being followed in India, some issues such as stringent vibration checks based on real vehicle simulations are not done to examine the load on batteries due to vibrations when EVs are loaded.

An EV commercial car being charged at a paid public charging point in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/ Mongabay

He further explained that battery manufacturing companies often lack redundant safety mechanisms and advocated for multiple layers of safety. Lamba said that, in many battery management systems, the technology does not communicate with the charger which helps the halting of charging automatically when it is charged enough to avoid overcharging and overheating of EVs batteries.

From the composition point of view, experts noted that in India when it comes to the biochemistry of batteries, they conventionally comprise Lithium-ion phosphate as cathode and graphite as anode while the carbon-based solvent is used as an electrolyte. Another common composition is Lithium-Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt-Oxide as cathode and graphite as an anode.

Sagar Mitra, Professor at the Department of Energy Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, claimed that when it comes to battery composition there are hardly any issues related to safety. He said that multiple other factors make batteries more vulnerable to thermal runaways making those batteries prone to fires.

He told Mongabay-India that it is the two-wheeler segment of EVs which are more prone to fires as they have a less advanced Battery Management System and Thermal Management System system compared to the four-wheeler segment which is key to controlling the batteries in cases of thermal degradation.

“If you compare the different segments of EVs, two-wheelers are more vulnerable to thermal runaway cases due to their low thermal management capacity and pack design issues,” he said. “Wrong design of batteries and vehicles, improper packaging of the batteries, and external factors like vibration during operation, overcharging and heat in the environment are issues that make such batteries more prone to overheating.”

“When this happens and timely cooling down actions are not triggered or fail to yield the desired result it often degrades the batteries,” he said. “As soon as this degradation occurs, gasses like methane and hydrocarbons are released as alarming signals.”

Mitra also emphasised that, in India, there is a dearth of fire safety research labs that can study such issues. He, however, noted that when compared to the total sales of two wheeler EVs in India the incidents of fires are not significant and should be avoided as much as possible.

Promit Mookerjee is a New Delhi-based researcher at the Observer Research Foundation studying clean energy and electric vehicle policies. He told Mongabay-India that the policy was a positive first step in creating the right ecosystem to enable battery as a service model, which are particularly attractive for commercial two and three-wheeler operators.

He opined that as battery prices come down, the upfront cost of EVs could come down significantly but said that the business models for battery swapping should be flexible enough to remain competitive with the fixed battery models in the future. He added that more clarity is also needed on monitoring protocols when it comes to fire safety issues.

“The issue of safety has now become critical, and there is a need to develop strict monitoring protocol for swappable batteries, the policy mentions this but more clarity is needed,” he said. “Aside from this, the strong focus on identifying the resale value of batteries through better data sharing and the emphasis on battery recycling are all welcome moves which must be implemented at the earliest.”

Manufacturers welcome policy

The manufacturers of EVs welcomed the proposed policy and claimed that it could pave the way for broader growth of EVs in India but added that the benefits are likely to reach the metropolitan cities first while the tier-II cities will see more time to get the real benefits.

The draft policy notes that, in the initial two years, it would focus on building the swapping infrastructure in metro cities that have a population of more than four million which include cities such as Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, Surat and Chennai. The work on creating such a system including the state capitals could be taken up after two years.

An e-rickshaw plying on the roads of Puri city in Odisha. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/ Mongabay

However, a battery swapping station operator, while requesting anonymity, said there is a lack of provisions for subsidy in the policy. “The policy talks about subsidy schemes either from a new scheme or from the modification of an existing scheme,” the battery swapping station operator said. “There is less clarity as of now on this. There is no clarity on whether the existing battery swapping stations will get it or it will be only for the new players.”

An EV manufacturer, who also requested anonymity, said that the battery swapping ecosystem is likely to give impetus to the three-wheeler and other segments which are primarily used as fleets for commercial activities like deliveries and last-mile connectivity but the trust of EV users towards a publicly-shared battery could be tough to gain. He said that under such circumstances, the battery swapping system and charging infrastructure are likely to co-exist.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.