Energy cooperatives: A key opportunity to integrate renewable energy with electric vehicles in India


Charging infrastructure

The need for clean energy is huge in India, and demand for transport is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades. As India has already set a strong renewable energy target for 2030 under its “Mission 500 GW” plan, the time is ripe to also embrace new business models and strategies, including energy cooperatives, that connect its rapidly expanding renewable energy generation with battery electric vehicles.

This past spring, I was lucky to participate in the Enertrack Fellowship, a 6-week program focused on climate and energy transformation offered by Agora Energiewende in Berlin, Germany. It gave me the opportunity to learn from energy experts and meet and engage with energy policymakers and sustainability professionals about ways to drive low-carbon technologies. In this post, I’ll share a few highlights of what I learned and how I think it can apply to charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in India.

The Government of India expects that for new sales of light-duty vehicles, 30% of private cars, 70% of commercial cars, and 80% of two- and three-wheelers will be electric by 2030. Connecting these with renewable energy might sound obvious, but actually the absence of demonstrations of functioning business models can prevent people from participating in and creating the market. Good thing there are strong examples of these models in European cities.

The technical feasibility of this integration was well proven in a project conducted in 2018 by Mobility2Grid in Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany. It demonstrated that a fleet of electric cars was able to contribute to a smart grid (also called a micro grid) fed by renewable energy as both energy storage and energy source. In addition to verifying the technical application, the project investigated the factors that could most support larger-scale application, and energy cooperatives emerged as the most viable business model. This is important because cooperative institutions supported by civil society organizations and governments at the state and national level have already shown good success in India in the areas of water conservation, waste management, and solar energy.

That’s not all. The Government of India has also taken introductory steps toward encouraging local energy sources in the form of micro grids in the draft National Electricity Policy, 2021. Energy cooperatives are formed for the purpose of producing, selling, consuming, or distributing electrical energy. Often community-based enterprises, they provide democratic, local control over energy and can effectively harness locally available decentralized renewable energy. This matches well with a key finding of the Mobility2grid project, which was that the electric vehicle-to-renewable-grid connection works best if local people are closely involved.

There’s also the success of Ecopower, a Belgian energy cooperative founded in the early 1990s to invest in renewable energy, among other things. Today Ecopower has more than 60,000 members who are estimated to have together saved more than 65,000 tons of CO2 in 2020. Ecopower is collaborating with DeeldeZon, another energy cooperative, to set up charging infrastructure for electric cars powered with solar energy. With the support of the European Union’s Interreg Flanders-Netherlands (Interreg promotes European territorial cooperation), this collaboration aims to connect nearly 24,000 solar panels and 20 smart charging stations by the end of 2022.

Electrification of more areas of the economy, including industry and transport, can bring about fairly radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, especially when electric power grids are powered by renewable energy sources. Previous ICCT analysis showed that battery electric vehicles in India already have the lowest life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, both for passenger cars and two-wheelers. With increased clean energy in the grid mix, the benefit is even more. Even when we somewhat conservatively considered 60% electric for new sales in the two-wheeler segment by 2030 and a carbon intensity of 0.6 gCO2/megawatt hour for the grid, emission levels from those vehicles were about 46 megatonnes of CO2 annually in 2050, far lower than 113 megatonnes they would have reached in the business-as-usual scenario with a greater share of combustion engine vehicles and more fossil fuels in the grid.

Our recent work for the ZEV Transition Council highlighted the need to future-proof the grid via new utility models, and the European Commission already defines energy communities as a key element in the clean energy transition. An energy community is a legal entity based on voluntary and open participation that is effectively controlled by members; its primary purpose is to provide environmental, economic, and social community benefits. Looking at the success of the above examples, India should encourage the market through policy support and a supportive regulatory environment for cooperative business models that integrate renewable energy and electric mobility. Two key bodies under the Ministry of Power—Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) and the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE)—are responsible for the rollout of public charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and can use the lessons from Europe to support the development of clean, energy-efficient charging infrastructure.