Plug-in or Swap-out: What’s going to charge India’s EV ambitions?

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The internal combustion (IC) engine is on its knees, sputtering. Its end is imminent. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the dusty urban outcropping of Haryana’s Gurugram.

Dealing with people

Zipping around the now-arterial national highways, which cut through several Gurugram neighborhoods, are budding fleets of electric rickshaws, scooters, and delivery vehicles, which move people and products alike. We’re standing on one side of this highway, where Tarun Sharma, the head of operations for DOT Energy, has just brought out their latest, self-engineered two and three-wheeler electric delivery vehicles.

DOT is a logistics and supply chain startup that leases or rents electric vehicles (EVs) to e-retailers, logistics, and food delivery companies. Some are stationed on the other side of the highway, and the rest dot the scraggy landscape of Gurugram.

“We use these delivery vehicles within a 1.5-3 kilometer radius. From the retailer’s warehouse to the customer. Currently, we charge the vehicles in-house,” says Sharma, pointing to a lone strip of four 15-ampere plug points in a dingy, overcrowded basement. Sharma’s keen to expand his delivery radius to Noida, over 50 kilometers away from their hub in Gurugram. However, he fears his vehicles won’t make it back on a single charge. “We need to swap batteries to make that trip,” he says.

Impact of the DOT and the affiliates

DOT isn’t alone. There are plenty of use cases for battery-swapping. E-rickshaw companies like SmartE, delivery businesses like Swiggy and Milkbasket, and ride-sharing platforms like Bounce, are increasingly going electric. After all, EVs are eco-friendly and have cheaper running costs.

India’s had a decade-long tryst with electric mobility, but the lack of charging infrastructure has stunted the sales of EVs. However, the latest bend in the road—a shift from private to public electric mobility—has introduced a sense of urgency to space. It has also rejigged the infrastructural priority from setting up stationary charging stations to battery-swapping.

“Swapping, as opposed to charging, can keep an e-rickshaw on the road beyond the usual 4-5 hours. Every business wants that extra revenue. Swapping would improve range and that makes sense for commercial fleets,” says Sanjeev Aggarwal, founder and managing director of Amplus Solar, a Gurugram-based renewable energy firm.

The rising use of EVs in public transport and delivery fleets and the abysmal lack of charging infrastructure has opened up a sweet spot between necessity and invention. An opportunity that companies like SUN Mobility are capitalizing on.

SUN is a high-tech, battery-swapping platform for electric scooters, three-wheelers, and buses. Launched in 2016, SUN manufactures its own Internet Of Things (IoT)-enabled battery packs, whose charge, range and efficiency can be controlled remotely.

Private Equity 

A 50-50 joint venture between EV manufacturer Virya Mobility 5.0 and private equity firm SUN group, this nascent battery-swapping startup already has an experienced set of leaders at the helm—Chetan Maini (who co-owns Virya) and Uday Khemka, an angel investor from the Khemka family-owned SUN Group. Khemka has developed several other clean energy platforms for the SUN Group and heads SUN Mobility alongside Maini.

The SUN Group has shored up a couple of billion dollars—mostly from institutional investors in Japan, China, and Silicon Valley—as a corpus for all its clean energy and clean technology platforms to dip into. SUN Mobility is one of them. SUN was also reportedly in talks with SoftBank Vision Fund for an investment of $100 million in 2017, but there have been no recent updates on the deal.

On the SUN platform, customers don’t own the battery. Instead, a pay-as-you-go system helps them stay asset-light.

With four swapping stations already functional, SUN’s aiming to be what CNG stations are to autos and taxis.

It sounds like a win-win. But it isn’t that simple.