Smart Cities: How Smart? How Sustainable?
Published on : Wednesday 01-06-2022
Experts debate the impact of India’s Smart Cities Mission seven years after the programme was launched in 2015.
The Smart Cities Mission in India was launched seven years ago, in June 2015, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as an urban renewal and retrofitting programme. The objective of the smart city initiative is to promote sustainable and inclusive cities that provide core infrastructure to give a decent quality of life, a clean and sustainable environment through application of some smart solutions such as data-driven traffic management, intelligent lighting systems, etc. Sustainability is the operative word when it comes to development today in view of the growing concern to the damage caused to the environment on the one hand, and the rising cost of energy on the other. Use of renewable energy and electric mobility are thus considered complementary features of smart cities. So what exactly is the present status of the Smart Cities Mission in India?
“The Indian government has gunned for a massive programme, i.e., Smart City Mission, targeting more than 4000 cities with an average population 5 lakh each. This program has set up big goals in areas of infrastructure automation and planned new age practices to develop next level urbanisation,” says Praveen Rao, Public Sector Advisor & Founder-Capturing Life Foundation, speaking of the expanded scope of the SCM. “As a realistic vision, the program was well initiated in all the planned cities but in terms of execution, political intervention and administrative hurdles have slowed down the processes in many cities and the freedom has not been given to decision makers to evaluate the right stakeholders for such projects.”
“The Smart Cities Mission (SCM) envisaged a total investment of Rs 2,05,018 crore. Out of these, projects involving an investment of Rs 93,552 crore were proposed to be developed using Centre and State funds. Work orders have been issued for almost 100% of these government funded projects, i.e., for projects involving an investment of Rs 92,300 crore,” says Prakash Iyer, Independent Consultant – Infrastructure, quoting the official figures. Referring to the acceleration of the financial progress, he points out how the total expenditure in the mission was Rs 1,000 crore in 2018, and has presently increased to Rs 45,000 crore. “The utilisation percentage of the total funds released by the GoI to various smart cities is at 91%. 80 of the Smart Cities have operationalised Integrated Command and Control Centres. The remaining 20 will be operational by 15th August, 2022,” says Iyer, the figures based on the deliberations of a recent conference, Smart Cities, Smart Urbanisation.
“National Smart Cities Mission is an urban redevelopment program by the Government of India with the mission to develop smart cities across the country, making them citizen friendly and supportable. The mission initially included 100 cities, with the deadline for completion of the projects set between 2019 and 2023. As per latest research, 3577 projects out of total 6939 tendered projects have been completed, utilising Rs 60,073 crore out of total tendered amount of Rs 191,294 crore,” says Manish Bhargava, Director, GM Manufacturing Services Pvt Ltd. “Predicting on the technology and its best practices being embraced by smart cities, India has set big goals for urban development, expanding the successful projects and new age practices to 4,000 cities with a population of 5,00,000 each by running the mission into a movement before its deadline ending in 2023,” he adds.
Creating model areas
Transforming an entire city with limited resourcing was not the idea given the huge task, so the focus is on creating a replicable model both within and outside the Smart City, to act like a lighthouse. How realistic is this?
“Indeed, one needs to start somewhere and see if it can percolate and permeate the rest of the city/state/country. There is no other way. Better to start somewhere than sit twiddling one's thumbs. Of course, one needs to be aware of any unnecessary trade-offs of any kind one may be introducing, which when looked at from a bird's-eye perspective may damage the 'equity' principle. It is always a 'smart' idea to think of symbiosis...among the different parts of the city,” opines Venkatesh G, Associate Professor, Karlstads Universitet, Sweden.
According to Prashanth G V, Head – Tech & Smart Cities @ Innovation Centre Denmark, India, the aim of developing an area within a Smart City referred to as Area Based Development (ABD), or a model area, is much required for Indian cities. Such areas will act as ‘lighthouse areas’ to replicate models for good and sustainable solutions with better IT connectivity and digitalisation, e-Governance, sanitation, solid waste management, efficient urban mobility and public transport, affordable housing and more sustainable environment friendly solutions. In India, such ‘model areas’ can be seen in Coimbatore and Surat. “A Danish example that signifies harmony in achieving urban development and sustainable, green development is the capital city of Copenhagen, rated as the world’s best bike (bicycling) city in 2019, by wired.com. Another impressive feat is Copenhagen’s recent mega urban development project in Nordhavn neighbourhood, which is among the largest and most ambitious urban development projects in Northern Europe when it comes to sustainability. Greener streets, courtyard gardens, rich fauna and landscaped streets that carry the rain from heavy rainfall away and down to the adjacent harbour are some of the benefits for residents. The project serves as a concrete example of the way urban planning in Copenhagen combines climate solutions with recreational benefits for locals – not as a bonus or side-effect but as an integral part of the solution,” he adds.
Sumeet Thakur, Solution Architect & Requirements Manager, is of the view that it is basic human psychology to be influenced and imitate the good that is happening around. “In India, the smart cities are nominated and selected based on sustainability challenges. To begin with, smart cities bring in an influx of funding from central and state governments as well as large scale employment creation. A successful smart city model will ensure water conservation, energy saving grids, waste management, smart traffic management, electric mobility, and infrastructure development. All of these factors will enhance the happiness index among the inhabitants of the city. Smart cities will bring new industries, job opportunities, and expand connections with the rest of the country. Such developments will encourage the other parts of the city or the neighbouring cities to adopt the smart model. A positive rub-off effect will prove to be a boon to India’s Smart Cities Mission,” he emphasizes.
Sustainability is one the core tenets for Smart Cities. How sustainable are the Smart Cities nominated so far? Can our smart cities achieve a net zero emissions goal?
“As per a study by WRI India, India accounts for nearly 6.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) with almost half of the country’s emissions having urban origins – emanating from industries, transport modes, buildings and waste. Smart cities are yet to achieve zero emission goals due to many administration issues and it can’t be addressed single handed,” notes Praveen Rao. According to him, the GoI has many public buildings, offices, public sector, municipal, etc., and to create a zero-carbon building some immediate steps are required, e.g., the structure or building’s renewable energy generation requirements, and the realignment of procurement process in the public sector. “Indian cities are particularly vulnerable to water stress, prolonged hot (or cold) days, heat island effect, flash floods, urban water logging, droughts, and deteriorating air quality,” he observes.
Prakash Iyer draws attention to the fact that smart cities have been conceptualised keeping in mind sustainability at all levels. Projects such as E-transport, energy efficient street lighting, air quality monitoring through smart poles, water conservation through metering and SCADA based leakage detection, waste recycling as well as scientific waste management among others are examples of sustainable initiatives planned for various smart cities. However, he also points out how funding as well as other constraints including reluctance at the stakeholders’ end at the present instance restrict implementation of such sustainable initiatives across the city. “For instance, while a city like Jaipur has a significant number of battery-operated E-rickshaws in the inner-city core, the same is not the case elsewhere in the city where fossil fuel-based transport contributes to emissions. Therefore, while net zero emissions are certainly possible in future, the same is based on a long-term road map with appropriate incentives provided to the various stakeholders to adopt sustainable practices,” he says.
“Industrial development, increasing population and climatic changes have challenged urban capacity. Urban governance has become an essential issue in the urban policies of various countries as a result of multiple urban problems. The low-carbon city is to create a stable and eco-friendly environment through innovative technologies to save energy, and improve the quality of living environment for citizens,” says Manish Bhargava. “Currently, the growing smart city combines various urban systems and services with advanced information technology, promoting quality of life and improving resource utilisation efficiency. In particular, it provides a new development path for urban environmental governance. This should also increase the smart health projects to achieve a satisfactory situation between economic and environmental,” he adds.
Can smart cities be powered by clean electricity through decentralised grids?
“Of course, there are examples here and there in the world. We must think in terms of 'self-sustaining' buildings independent of the grid to some extent,” says Venkatesh G., who quotes the example of solar panels on building facades, for instance, or on top of roofs of bus-stops – a common sight in Germany. Indian cities can surely avail of the benefits of solar energy – the fount of everything on Mother Earth. “We need to realise that the heaps and heaps of organic waste we generate have fuel-value. If all our sewage is collected and treated, we can generate methane and have small decentralised power generation units. Yes, there are limits when it comes to decentralised renewable energy....but India is actually blessed with a lot of creative genius ('jugaad' some may term it, derogatorily), and simple solutions often add up to impressive end-results,” he notes.
“Smart cities can aim at generating a certain degree of clean electricity from decentralised grids. India is already taking steps in this direction with 14 pilot projects approved by the Ministry of Power,” says Prashanth G V. However, he cautions, for decentralised grids to become a reality on a larger scale, we must understand that smart grid utilities require a variety of digital technologies such as analytics, monitoring of the distribution grid, intelligent systems, customer touch points and the upgrading of metering infrastructure. All of which requires resources and time. “One of the basic infrastructure requirements is installation of smart meters, where India is aiming for installation of 250 million smart meters by 2025. Denmark started this journey around 2010. It is estimated that investments of around 1 billion Euro would be required till 2025 to expand and equip their grid intelligently,” he adds.
While in agreement with the concept of decentralised grids, Sumeet Thakur points out how decentralised renewable energy sources (DRE) such as solar panels, mini or micro grids and rechargeable batteries have shown promise in ensuring equitable access to sustainable energy. Solar photovoltaic technology, a popular DRE technology, has already replaced more than half of the diesel-powered systems in rural India. The present status – out of the total installed renewable energy capacity of approximately 90 GW – only 5% of this is DRE, which is only 1% of India’s total installed electricity capacity. “Indians are reluctant to switch to unreliable energy sources due to limited grids because of geographical constraints and frequent energy cuts. Less attention is paid to DRE and off-grid development, and the allocated budget is merely Rs 460 crore,” he cautions.
How do the 100 cities nominated for the Smart City Mission fare in terms of Electric Mobility – not just passenger EVs but transport systems?
“The government of India has set itself an ambitious target to make India a 100% electric vehicle nation by 2030. Its various programs, including FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles), are steps towards achieving this goal,” says Praveen Rao. According to him, projects like ITMS & BRTS are already implemented either under Smart Cities Scope or separately. Electric mobility is gaining traction, but they will not succeed until a city attains or adopts an explicit energy policy with innovative and realistic strategies, calibrated over a medium-long term horizon. Electric mobility is the future but in terms of cost and safety, we are still lagging, as the recent incidents in the country have alarmed and proved that we are not well prepared. “I believe Electric Mobility should be kept separate from Smart Cities Mission considering the list of existing and upcoming challenges in cities. Electric mobility still has cost based and safety challenges which are yet to be addressed and citizens should feel confident and safe while opting for it,” he states matter of factly.
According to Prakash Iyer, the high acquisition cost of electric vehicles vis-à-vis conventional vehicles despite subsidies being offered under the FAME scheme is a big deterrent. Add to that the inadequate charging infrastructure and safety concerns. On the positive side is the fact that the government is providing a huge impetus to electric vehicles through large tenders for electric bus and three-wheeler procurement for deployment across various cities. “EESL recently closed a tender for 150,000 electric three-wheelers, at prices 18-20 per cent lower than the retail price. Convergence Energy Services (CESL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Energy Efficiency Services (EESL) has floated a tender for 5,450 single-decker buses and 130 double-decker buses at an estimated cost of Rs 5450 crore, which is expected to lead to greater cost efficiencies and faster deployment of electric vehicles in public transport across various cities including smart cities,” he asserts.
Manish Bhargava draws attention to the fact that the Indian transportation sector accounts for one-third of the total crude oil consumed in the country, where 80% is being consumed by road transportation alone. It also accounts for around 11% of total CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 seeks to enhance national energy security, mitigate adverse environmental impacts from road transport vehicles and boost domestic manufacturing capabilities for electric vehicles. In addition, the Phase-II of FAME scheme is expected to stimulate the market of EVs in the country, along with the various financial incentives to reduce upfront cost of EVs and charging infrastructure. “It is believed that that the report will stimulate concerted and coordinated efforts by policy makers, regulators, utilities, OEMs and other value chain players to understand the existing gaps in current landscape of EV industry in India and the key action items required for enabling accelerated adoption of EVs to support India’s vision of transitioning to sustainable and green mobility,” he says optimistically.
How realistic and achievable is the goal to achieve 100% plug-in electric vehicles by 2030?
Venkatesh G believes in India, this is a bad idea! “I hope people realise that these plug-in EVs need electricity? Where does this come from? Thermal power plants? This would mean that the need for power is going to rise, and for that more coal would be combusted in the power plants somewhere far away. Mr and Mrs X may feel snug and happy that nothing is coming out of their car's exhaust...but the pollution has already happened elsewhere! Unless it can be guaranteed that all excess power for these EVs would be sourced from hydropower, this is a bad idea! Yes, if storage systems can be set up in basements to store solar-powered electricity, these EVs may avail of their 'juice' from there instead. Please think systemically! Do not adopt the ‘As long as the air above me in my city streets is clean, it is all well and good’' No matter where the GHGs are released, global warming affects one and all,” he asserts.
“Challenges exist in both the supply and implementation side. On the supply side, primary challenges involve securing adequate supply of lithium as India has low lithium reserves compared to the demand for EVs, while globally, there is an acute shortage of microchips, derailing ambitions for faster roll out of more EVs. On the implementation side, the plan to roll out more than 300,000 electric charging stations across India is required to realise this grand ambition,” opines Prashanth G V. “In order to realise 100% plug-in vehicles in India, there is a cohesive requirement for supportive policies, incentives and tax breaks, private sector participation and focussing greater efforts to expedite research and development of viable alternatives to Lithium such as Sodium to represent our best chance of meeting this ambitious goal. As a perspective of what can be achieved with an aggressive policy push and support of multiple stakeholders, Denmark currently has the most zero-emission urban buses on the roads in Europe, with electric buses making up 78% of its new vehicles, according to data from Transport and Environment (T&E), a green NGO. In May 2021, DanTaxi, a large taxi company in Denmark opened the largest e-taxi charging hub in the Nordics,” he adds.
Summing up, Sumeet Thakur feels it is going to be tough to achieve 100% plug-in electric vehicles in India by 2030 due to the following major roadblocks:
Workforce – with a switch to 30 percent electric cars out of all vehicles on roads, workforce requirements will decrease by 20-25% creating unemployment.
Additional power availability on existing grids – India’s current energy grid system will not be able to cope up with the additional demands of charging many EVs at the same time. A mere 30 percent EV addition in Indian cities will require about 5-8% more power generation capacity than normal.
Skill set development – EV related jobs will require a specially trained workforce capable of handling the new challenges, development of which will take substantial time and investment.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)