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An unanticipated barrier emerges in India’s EV adoption

Siddhartha Shukla, who stays in Greater Noida, charges his electric scooter through a cable plugged to a socket in his 12th floor apartment.  (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint )Premium
Siddhartha Shukla, who stays in Greater Noida, charges his electric scooter through a cable plugged to a socket in his 12th floor apartment. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint )

  • Owners of eco-friendly electric vehicles find charging an uphill task in residential complexes
  • EV owners are facing an unusual hurdle— from their resident welfare associations. RWAs are spooked by instances of EV-related fires and aren’t allowing charging infra to be set up.

NEW DELHI : Siddhartha Shukla, a software professional in his early 30s, has a peculiar weekend routine.

From the balcony of his 12th-floor apartment in a Greater Noida housing society, he drops a 90-metre-long cable all the way to the ground floor, where his Ola S1 Pro scooter is parked. The cable, plugged to a 15-ampere socket in one of his rooms, charges the electric vehicle (EV).

“It takes me 20 minutes at the very least to simply initiate the charging process," Shukla tells Mint. “And the same amount of time to wrap it up once the charging is done."

Why is there such an elaborate process to charge an EV? Well, his resident welfare association (RWA) hasn’t allowed any chargers to be installed.

There are no spare parking spaces to set up semi-public chargers for residents, he was told. The RWA wouldn’t allow a charger to be set up in Shukla’s allotted parking space, in the basement, either. In this case, only he can use it. It would also set a precedent—the process would have to be repeated for any resident who buys an EV.

While the RWA is open to discussing the problem, for now, it makes Shukla’s life rather complicated. He pays for costly cab rides to the metro station, from where he takes the train to his office. At times, he drives his diesel-engine SUV to the office.

Shukla’s experience is far from unique. Like him, many EV owners go to odd lengths to simply charge their vehicles.

EV users who reside in apartment complexes often find themselves rather isolated—electric cars form just about 1% of the total passenger car market in India, while electric scooters are close to 4-5% of the total two-wheeler market. But a majority of them rely on home charging. This level of penetration is far below the numbers the government had forecast back in 2019, when the ministry of housing and urban affairs amended its model building bye-laws (applicable to new buildings), to direct residential complexes to equip at least 20% of their total parking space for charging electric vehicles.

The power ministry, in January 2022, also clarified that it is legal for EV owners to charge their EVs using their domestic electricity connection. However, not all RWAs are aware of this directive. And the low penetration of electric vehicles has kept awareness about the infrastructure requirements for EVs low. Further, RWA members, whose exposure to developments in the EV ecosystem mainly comes from reports in the mainstream media, are spooked by instances of EV-related fires, most of which are due to incorrect charging.

A Twitter poll by this writer, asking whether EV owners have faced resistance from their RWAs in letting them install an EV charger, garnered 324 responses with 57% of the votes in the positive. Many EV owners, predominantly from cities like Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi, cited common grievances—RWAs were not willing to let people drill holes in walls, concerned about existing concealed wiring. There were also uncertainties in terms of the load on the grid. Others said some RWAs are speaking to vendors and evaluating options. Of course, some cited ambiguous building bye-laws as an impediment.

Violations?

Anand Vedula lives in Bengaluru and drives a Mahindra E2O, a hatchback electric car. He is locked in a battle with his RWA since 2020. The association has refused to let him charge the car using a connection from his own meter!

The logic forwarded—it is illegal to use a domestic connection outside one’s residential boundary.

“The RWA committee members said Bangalore Electricity Supply Co (BESCOM) has given electricity only to my apartment and it will be a violation of the Electricity Act if I use the power beyond my boundaries and that they are not authorized by BESCOM to provide a charging point anywhere in the society," Vedula says.

In 2020, he was the only EV owner in his society that has 504 apartments.

“I spoke to the AEE (assistant executive engineer) of our BESCOM sub-division. He said it is legal for any individual to extend power from his own meter to his own parking slot for EV charging. I then got an electrician and pulled a 100-metre wire from my apartment on the 9th floor to my parking slot in the basement and installed a socket. I used this arrangement from May 2018 to February 2020 without any hassle," he said.

And then, some committee members objected to his arrangement and claimed that the electrical panel room in the basement was a common area and to use it for charging, was a violation of the bye-laws, Vedula said.

Then, there is Barathy Kolappan, a 23-year-old developer from Chennai. He rides an electric scooter and usually charges it at his office. On 7 November, last year, he needed to quickly reach a friend who was admitted in a hospital and discovered that the scoter’s battery had drained. He was home and decided to plug the charger of his electric scooter into a 15-ampere socket in the basement parking of his apartment building. What followed was a confrontation with not so pleasant consequences—the maintenance staff at the building confiscated his charger.

There were no restrictions on charging EVs in his agreement with the RWA. And yet, the association demanded that Kolappan either pay a penalty of 5,000 or vacate the premises in order to get his charger back. They called his act of charging a “very serious" and “rather dangerous misadventure", citing their fear of blasts.

Kolappan had to vacate his apartment—he paid 100, and retrieved his charger after months of back-and-forth.

S. Harish from Coimbatore bought a Tata Nexon EV and waited for two months to obtain permissions from his RWA for access to the electricity board meter line. When the permission didn’t come through, he installed a private charger. Then began the predictable story of harassment by the association.

“My apartment association is not EV friendly and not cooperating, and continuously harassing me," Harish wrote in a complaint to the district collector. “Many other prospective EV buyers are also frustrated due to this. The apartment association should not object to fixing of private charging points when the government authorized engineers conduct pre-site audits and certify feasibility of safe installation," he added in the letter.

Even as the government incentivizes the adoption of electric vehicles by not only subsidizing the costs of EVs, but also introducing lower electricity tariffs for EV charging, instances like these highlight the lack of awareness about the laws and regulations. Further, the lack of solutions available to apartment owners for private and semi-public charging is causing early adopters of electric vehicles much inconvenience, almost penalizing them for the lack of ready infrastructure and for buying an EV in the sector’s nascent years.

Educating RWAs

What is the way ahead?

Tata Power, a power company, feels a rapid ramp-up of shared charging in common spaces like apartment parking lots will be key to mitigating this issue. Step one of this process is educating RWA members, says Virendra Goyal, head of business development, EV charging, at Tata Power.

The company works closely with Tata Motors, the country’s largest passenger EV maker. The company also works with other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and various government and private institutions to set up EV charging stations.

Tata Power says it is partnering with residential welfare associations and large developers to install community charging stations for EVs that can be accessed by occupants and visitors in the society, and can be booked in advance through an app. It has already set up charging stations in over 300 societies in Mumbai and in several housing societies in Delhi and the national capital region. As of now, the company sets up these community chargers at its own cost, even if utilization is just about 1% and often with a separate energy connection, while the society provides it parking space free of cost.

Tata Power is also advertising on social media and has signed deals with companies such as JLL and Rustomjee, which manage facilities in many apartment complexes, to deploy common EV chargers in buildings.

“The shift to electric in India will play out in a hockey-stick manner, with the pace of growth of penetration of chargers increasing every month as awareness goes up," Goyal says.

However, common chargers in apartments can only go so far—once EV numbers increase, long waiting times to charge vehicles with a limited number of slow-chargers will not be feasible any more.

On the other hand, if RWAs allow EV owners to draw individual charging connections, the additional load will necessitate a transformer upgrade as only a specific amount of load is sanctioned per household, and for the society at large. These upgrades come at a cost, and not every resident may be keen to share the expense.

Getting infra right

While the new model building bye-laws can ensure charging infra in new buildings, the challenge of inadequate charging infrastructure in existing housing societies is the more immediate issue to address.

“As EV ownership increases, it will be important for consumers to be aware of their future power needs and invest in it, and for apartment complexes to be proactive in installing charging infrastructure," says Randheer Singh, director of electric mobility at India’s federal think tank NITI Aayog. “Some apartment complexes in Delhi and NCR are even installing common electric fast chargers, anticipating these needs. Besides, there is also a need for the grid infrastructure to be upgraded at the distribution level to support increased EV charging, and ‘time of use management’ may be necessary to prevent strain on the grid. OEMs, charge point operators (CPOs) and discoms need to work together to educate customers and build a safe charging ecosystem," he adds.

‘Time of use management’ means optimizing the grid for the highest load versus the lowest. Power usage typically plummets at night and thereby, the load on the grid is then at its lowest.

Charge point operators install and operate charging stations for EVs—that makes them essential infrastructure builders in the EV ecosystem. Going ahead, CPOs will need to get creative in building a positive business case for installing chargers in societies, while also bearing the cost of installation, new connections and transformer upgrades.

Statiq, one of the country’s largest CPOs, installs ‘ad walls’ in societies—these are 22kW chargers which also display digital ads and offset these initial costs.

“One issue is the density of the population (in India) and the unstable electricity grid, which can make it difficult for apartment complex managers to provide enough power for EV charging," says Raghav Arora, chief technology officer at Statiq.

Charging stations that require high levels of power, such as those with 7kW or higher capacity, can strain the grid and may not be practical for apartment complexes with many EV-driving residents.

Another issue is the lack of awareness among apartment complex managers about the technical aspects of setting up EV charging points, including the amount of power needed and the potential for overload on the grid, Gupta adds. “This can lead to situations where societies give high-capacity chargers to a small number of EV owners, leading to practical problems when more residents start driving EVs," he says.

While there are instances of some societies having proactively taken steps to embrace this new technology, more RWAs need to fall in line. Their members must start putting EV charging on their meeting agendas sooner rather than later. Else, India’s EV story will hit an unusual speed bump.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alisha Sachdev

Alisha Sachdev is an assistant editor with Mint based in Delhi. She reports on the auto and mobility sector, with a special focus on emerging clean mobility technologies. She also focusses on developing multimedia properties for Mint and currently hosts the 'In A Minute' series and the Mint Primer podcast. Previously, she has worked with CNBC-TV18 and NDTV.
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