|In early 2012, after years of experimentation, an Indian start-up called Ampere developed an electric motorcycle that people would actually buy.
It wasn’t a sleek, shiny bike for the urban hipster — the company had tried that and failed. It was the Angel, a heavy, clunky converted Chinese bicycle that goes only 15 miles an hour but can carry extremely heavy loads. The customers were farmers and small tradesmen in the southern countryside who liked the fact that the bike could take a beating, cost only $386 and could be fueled for virtually nothing since farmers here get their electricity at no cost.
Then, in May, an acute power shortage took hold in Ampere’s home state, Tamil Nadu. The supply of rationed electricity in most of the state dropped from 13 or 14 hours a day to 8. Almost immediately, said the company’s co-founder, Pachyappa Bala, the company’s monthly sales dropped from 600 bikes to 60.
Ampere’s plight highlights an unexpected consequence of the worsening power shortages in India. The fledgling market for electric vehicles, which might help clean up the polluted air, is losing traction because customers aren’t confident they can fill up the battery.
India’s power crisis came to the world’s attention last July, when mismanagement of the grid caused a vast blackout in northern India that left more than 600 million people without power for two days. But Indians were already well familiar with the electricity problem, at least in the form of power cuts, as they’re called here.
That the grid goes dark for at least a few hours a day in many areas, especially outside big cities, dictates the pace of life for tens of millions of people. Most of the country’s power comes from coal-fired plants, and a combination of rising international prices and poor transportation from India’s mines have left some plants without enough fuel. Tamil Nadu, a state of 72 million, has small coal reserves but vast demands for power as an industrial hub.
The loss of confidence isn’t limited to start-ups in the hinterlands. Hero Electric, an arm of Hero Group, one of India’s largest manufacturers of two-wheelers, has found that when the power flickers, so does customer enthusiasm.
“We have discovered that in the last six months our sales have dropped to only 15 percent of what it was in Tamil Nadu,” Sohinder Gill, the chief executive of Hero Electric, said in an interview. “Because there is nothing in sight, no resolution in the next few months, the sentiment is really subdued, and the dealerships are also closing one by one.”
In Europe and North America, one of the main arguments in favor of electric cars is that they reduce emissions of CO2 and other gases that cause climate change. In the polluted cities of Asia, though, the more immediate promise is that of cleaner air. A study released last month found that tailpipe exhaust from vehicles is contributing to the premature death of 2.1 million people a year in South and East Asia.
The market for electric vehicles faces other headwinds as well. Indian vehicle buyers have proven resistant to paying a premium for electric cars. The central government has promised a $4.13 billion stimulus program, including subsidies, with the goal of getting six million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. But the government’s support has wavered in the past. A program to subsidize electric cars started in November 2010, only to be ended four months later when funds dried up.
Despite the obstacles, Ampere and other electric vehicle makers remain optimistic that their technology can meet a huge need. One is Chetan Maini, the founder of Mahindra REVA, one of India’s only makers of electric cars.
The company has sold only 2,500 cars in India since its founding in 1994, Mr. Maini said, but this year the company plans to introduce a new electric car code-named NXR and a 30,000-car-capacity plant to build it in Bangalore.