Snapshots of the Future

Innovative ideas to build and finance sustainable infrastructure for Smart Cities need to go beyond collecting tolls and imposing burdensome taxes

Nitin Sukh SAN_8943

The sustainable mobility debate in India has traditionally, and quite rightfully, focussed on mass-transit-oriented solutions, such as expanding metro lines, bus networks and alternative fuelled auto rickshaws. In this endeavour, what’s often being missed out is the need for a significant re-think on how personal mobility can be revolutionised, especially in the context of smart and green urbanisation. 2.6 million passenger vehicles and 1.6 million two wheelers were added onto India’s roads in 2014-2015. 99.97 percent of these vehicles are powered by fossil fuels and projections indicate that India will become the largest consumer of oil and gas globally within just a couple of years, of which over 70 percent will be imported. With oil and gas prices hovering at historical lows, India has good economic reasons to rejoice, at least for the short term. For the long term, however, given the global climate change challenge, fossil fuel price volatility and the unfolding air-pollution-linked urban public health crisis, the electrification of personal mobility, pedestrianism and cycling are - quite simply - necessities for sustainable economic growth in urban India. With regard to electric vehicles (EVs), from a high of 100,000 electric four wheelers and two wheelers sold in 2011, 2014-2015 saw a dramatic decline in EV sales to a paltry 10,000 nationwide. Despite the government providing subsidies to spur EV purchases, studies indicate that buyers are primarily concerned about the lack of public EV charging infrastructure. But even if charging points are installed in the current scenario, grid power, which is predominantly coal-based, will charge those EVs - completely defeating the green purpose of going electric in the first place. Pedestrianism and cycle usage would require pavements, overhead walkways and elevated cycle superhighways, akin to plans shaping up, or already operational, in other countries. Building this transformative smart urban mobility infrastructure is undoubtedly expensive, especially if it is to be durable and low carbon in nature. This begs us to think of innovative ways in which this can be built and financed where it also generates revenue, going beyond collecting toll and imposing burdensome taxes. Most municipalities are cash strapped and lack the credit worthiness to commercially borrow money, a situation that poses a major deterrent for financial institutions. Therefore, ‘smart infrastructure’ by virtue must also generate multiple flows of long-term revenue. In this regard, integrating solar technologies to smarten urban mobility infrastructure projects not only adds the possibility of additional revenue being generated, but also enhances the credit worthiness of the projects themselves. Now to delve into some futuristic thinking. Imagine roads made up of a mosaic of solar panels protected by tempered and toughened glass that can take the weight of ten trucks. The glass is anti slip and doesn’t erode when exposed to the elements. Exposed to the sun, the solar road charges throughout the day, generating solar energy that can be used to power street lights and fast-charging stations for EVs. Excess power is then fed into the grid using the internet and smart meters. Municipal authorities, in essence, become power generators and the road building being ‘self financed’, where the project pays back, is accelerated with the additional revenue stream. The Future is Now Sounds like science fiction? A start up in the American state of Idaho, Solar Roadways, has already developed this system and is in the process of testing out its idea in a number of small towns in the US. Even if solar panels fitted into the road is too distant a dream to fathom for urban India, imagine just lining urban India’s roads with solar panels. That’s at least 25 years worth of revenue streaming in for municipalities, i.e. for the lifetime of the panels. The total length of urban roads in India currently stands at approximately 464,294 kilometers, with 29,511 kilometers in Delhi alone. Imagine the sheer quantum of energy generated if every roadside was lined with panels. Since a core impediment to India’s 175 GW solar vision is land availability, solar urban roads negate the need for painful land conversions for mega solar projects. What about pavements that generate electricity from the pressure exerted by thousands of people walking on them? Once again, the electricity can be sold or utilised for public lighting and security cameras. Yes, this exists as well. Pavegen, a British start-up is currently testing this technology in London. Now imagine an elevated cycle super highway lined with energy generating tiles and covered by solar panels providing much-needed shade to cyclists. That’s two revenue streams right there, from one project. Technology integration, therefore, has the potential of turning otherwise mundane and money-sinking urban infrastructure into exciting money generating business models. A simple trigger to kick start this vision would be to include self financing parameters in infrastructure tenders floated by city municipalities, thereby steering the private sector’s thought process in applying for build, operate and transfer (BOT) projects. Our cities must become snapshots of the future, which begins with how we envision them in the first place. All city municipalities need to do now is ask for that future, and the private sector can deliver.