Delhi’s pollution drives India to champion gas for vehicles

State-run gas companies are charting ambitious plans to extend the use of natural gas to trucks and scooters, and build infrastructure for long-haul travel on the fuel


One of the top automobile markets, where about 70% of vehicles run on diesel, India is seeking to cut emissions and its import bill by more than doubling natural gas use in its energy mix by 2021. Photo: AFP
One of the top automobile markets, where about 70% of vehicles run on diesel, India is seeking to cut emissions and its import bill by more than doubling natural gas use in its energy mix by 2021. Photo: AFP

Mumbai/New Delhi: Smothered by increasingly toxic air, India is moving to the forefront of a global push to use more of cleaner natural gas in vehicles.

The country’s state-run gas companies are charting ambitious plans to extend the use of natural gas to trucks and scooters, and build infrastructure for long-haul travel on the fuel. Their optimism is reflected in forecasts from the International Energy Agency, which said in its latest outlook that India is on course to be the biggest contributor to growth in the use of natural gas in vehicles after the US and China through 2040.

One of the top automobile markets, where about 70% of vehicles run on diesel, India is seeking to cut emissions and its import bill by more than doubling natural gas use in its energy mix by 2021. Adding urgency to the move is the dubious distinction its capital gained earlier this month of being the world’s most-polluted city. Still, progress toward widening the use of natural gas will be slow given declining domestic production, a patchy pipeline network and limited regasification capacity for imports.

“The scope of gas in India’s transport is huge,” said E.S. Ranganathan, managing director of Indraprastha Gas Ltd., which has launched gas-fueled scooters in New Delhi using engine-conversion kits developed by an Iranian firm. “We just need the right policies to boost investment in its infrastructure such as laying more pipelines, setting up of re-fueling stations along the highways and using liquefied natural gas to fuel vehicles.”

If the government pushes natural gas as a primary fuel for transportation, India’s vehicular gas consumption could jump eight times to over 62 million cubic meters a day by 2030, according to Virginia-based energy consultancy ICF International Inc.

The government has already prioritized city-based gas distribution, including the use of compressed natural gas for transport, and said that local production should first be used to meet demand in this sector. It also plans to more than double the country’s pipeline network, which is more developed in western than in eastern India, to about 30,000 kilometers.

Pollution

Though gas in India is priced too high to compete against cheaper coal for power generation, state-run gas companies see it winning the cost battle in transportation against more-expensive gasoline and diesel. Running a vehicle on natural gas is over 60% cheaper than gasoline and 32% less than diesel at current prices, according to a statement from Indraprastha Gas.

It’s also cleaner, sharpening its appeal. Readings in New Delhi for deadly particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, soared above 900 micrograms per cubic meter in early November, according to pollution monitoring site Air Visual. The readings were well above the World Health Organization’s annual exposure guideline of 10 micrograms.

A key hurdle is supply. Natural gas demand in India is expected to increase by four-fold to 190 billion cubic meters in 2040, though domestic production may rise to only 90 bcm, according to the IEA. Imports will need to fill the 100-bcm gap, according to the agency.

“The challenge in the long run is the availability of gas from domestic sources,” Mahanagar Gas Ltd. managing director Rajeev Kumar Mathur said, adding that if production doesn’t increase, India will need to import more. In the year ended 31 March, domestic natural gas production fell to a nine-year low. Of the country’s total gas consumption, about 46% was met through imports.

“If suppose tomorrow we import more and the prices rise, then the attractiveness of this as opposed to alternate fuels may diminish,” Mathur said.

That hasn’t stopped India’s oil ministry from working with other departments such as the federal road ministry and state governments to push the use of liquefied natural gas in transportation. “If we are able to convert heavy, long-haul vehicles to run on LNG, it will help cut pollution and also lower costs,” oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan said on 10 November.

Trials

Petronet LNG Ltd., India’s biggest importer of the chilled fuel, along with Indian Oil Corp., the country’s top fuel retailer, have a trial program in the southern state of Kerala to run long-haul buses on LNG. Petronet has also said it is also in talks with automakers such as Ashok Leyland Ltd. to conduct trials on trucks that run on LNG.

Mahanagar Gas Ltd., the nation’s third-largest city gas distributor, is building gas retailing stations along highways in the western state of Maharashtra to promote the use of compressed natural gas for long-distance transport. It is also working on a kit that can make a diesel engine run on gas and will soon commence trials of gas-fueled scooters in Mumbai.

“We consume about 70 million tons of diesel annually,” said Prabhat Singh, chief executive officer of Petronet, which is targeting large and small trucks. “Even if we’re able to replace half of it, that will be a big success.” Bloomberg

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