The government’s plans to invest Rs200 crore in a new institute to focus on indigenous fuel-efficient engines might seem far-sighted, since India’s automobile producing capacity is nowhere in the league of say, Japan or Europe or, the US—countries where most of the technology action is taking place. Mounting concerns of dependence on costly oil imports and of the climate change impact of greenhouse gas emissions are forcing a large number of countries and companies to work on alternative fuels. While such an initiative can only be seen as a positive signal, when it comes to technology, the priority should be on taking the best—irrespective of source.
Internationally, hybrid engines, which run on multiple energy sources, have been growing in popularity. Sales are roughly to the extent of 200,000 in the US. China, too, got engaged with hybrids after Toyota launched the Prius a decade ago, which in fact is now produced there, too. China is already moving towards encouraging companies to invest in hydrogen (and electric) cars.
Hydrogen is among the cleanest fuels today and available in abundance, but its use to generate energy requires advanced technological capabilities. Further, even for leading automobile producers such as Honda, Daimler-Chrysler, BMW, Ford, General Motors that have already developed hydrogen-run cars, affordability is likely to be a constraint for another 5-10 years.
Against this backdrop, the government’s growing interest in alternative fuel technologies is the right approach, provided there is cohesiveness and a proper policy framework. Especially because of these being very nascent, the market needs to be encouraged in the initial phase.
Even though the government announced a few months back about its ambitious plans to have one million hydrogen-run vehicles by 2020, there are sceptics about the success of such plans who cite both the Indian market’s readiness and its small scale, apart from the feasibility issue. Not only from the cost perspective, but also from the view of infrastructure preparedness—for example, an adequate scale of refuelling facilities and servicing of such engines would be crucial for such projects to get the consumer enthusiastic. (China, of course, is already at the stage of setting up around 1,000 hydrogen dispensing stations.)
While the latest stated emphasis on indigenous technologies is welcome, there are several developments in parallel which call for a larger strategy—one that allows for learning from the best of foreign technologies, even while working on local ones.
Public institutions—including the IITs, IISc and Isro are working on similar lines and several automobile companies are collaborating with these. At the same time, there is a joint initiative among the Indian Oil Corp., the ministry for new and renewable energy and companies including Bajaj Auto, Ashok Leyland, Tata Motors and Eicher working together with Siam (the industry body) to develop hydrogen-blended CNG-run vehicles. Indian companies are also working with foreign partners on this front. Mahindra, for instance,?is reported to be studying the feasibility of hydrogen internal combustion engines and fuel cells with Shell.
However, as many players have said, they are still waiting for suitable incentives before commercial feasibility can be thought of. The US government, for instance, offers a federal tax cut for zero- emission vehicles.
Finally, it seems that the initial use of such technologies in India would be more economically feasible in public transport—Tata Motors and Isro are working together on a pilot project on hydrogen fuels, having invested Rs5 crore and Rs1 crore, respectively. They are quite optimistic about cost effectiveness, as they plan to start with buses.
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