Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Electric vehicles might be the future, but the country’s infrastructure has a long way to go before it can charge them.
If China can’t wean its 1.4 billion people off their dependence on cars, then perhaps it can at least fuel interest in cars that run on clean energy.
That appears to be the thinking from the country’s deputy industry minister, who, according to the state news agency Xinhua, announced last weekend that the country will ban the sale of fossil-fuel cars sometime “in the near future.” (Contrary to some media reports, he didn’t offer any specific timeline—only that “relevant research” is in the works.) The announcement comes at the heels of Britain’s and France’s declarations to ban gasoline cars in 2040, and after India’s commitment to phase out their oil-guzzling machines by 2020.
Already, foreign car companies are scrambling to secure a chunk of China’s automobile market—the largest in the world—through partnerships with local automakers. But there’s one big question: Does China (or any country, really) have the infrastructure needed to—quite literally—charge the electric vehicle revolution?
The short answer is no—at least not yet.
In terms of EV sales, China far surpasses Europe and the U.S. More than 500,000 EVs were sold in China in 2016, up 53 percent from the year before. Compare that to Europe’s 222,000 or America’s 157,000 in the same year. China has also projected the sale of another 800,000 vehicles in 2017, though it’s worth noting that that would still make up just a tiny portion of the 200 million cars on China’s roadways.
Still, the country has been pushing EVs aggressively, most recently by introducing strict regulations requiring automakers to make electric or plug-in hybrid cars 8 percent of their total sales by 2018, after which the quota will go up incrementally. By 2025, it hopes EVs will make up a fifth of total vehicle production and sales. Despite complaints from the industry, the government isn’t budging.
As for the charging infrastructure, China leads in numbers as well, with roughly 150,000 public charging points. Public charging stations in the U.S., by comparison, clock in at just 16,000. Still, “I don’t think there are more than a couple dozen publicly available charging stations in any city,” Sabrina Howell, a New York University finance expert who focuses on China, tells CityLab in an email. By 2020, though, China plans to have a nationwide network of charging stations large enough to support a whopping 5 million EVs.
Yet strength in volume doesn’t necessarily translate to a clear strategy, and already the cracks are revealing themselves. "I don't get a sense that China has thought through the charging issue, and the economics of it,”says Henry Lee, the director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University. “Nor do I think that they have a business plan for it."
Consumers report struggling just to find a charging station they can use without loading their phones and wallets with a host of prepaid cards and apps. China hands out subsidies for private companies to build charging stations, and companies have eagerly gobbled them up. But there’s a lack of standards, so each system is different. Combine that with the fact that China has dozens of electric car companies—and over 200 startups that want to take advantage of subsidies and build their own EVs—and you get frustrated drivers like Liu Sheng, who owns a locally produced Volvo S60L plug-in hybrid vehicle in Shanghai.
"I've tried charging my car away from home, but couldn't, either because the charger head wouldn't fit or I had to buy a pre-charged card," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. It doesn’t help that many car charging stations aren’t in a convenient location, in part because of the high land costs.
Lee adds that not all charging stations are created equal. Some can get the job done “in a matter of minutes,” as Tesla likes to boast about its Superchargers. Others—the Level 1 chargers—can take eight hours to charge a short-range EV like the Nissan Leaf. Automakers will likely profit more by marketing their cheaper, limited range (and therefore, limited battery) models to China’s working class. That means “China can probably get away with simple-charging [infrastructure], but then you get a problem with everyone charging at night,” Lee says. “You’d have to upgrade your electricity system, which is another set of problems.”
In China’s fast-paced cities, Lee thinks the slow-charging stations will soon overstay their welcome. Yet China has neither the capacity, nor the viable plan, to help companies install the most sophisticated chargers in places where they’re needed most: city centers.
“Land cost in the middle of a Chinese city is so expensive that nobody could ever put one of these stations in central Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, and make any money,” Lee says. “So you put them in the [outskirts], and the irony is that you live in the middle of the city and you have to drive out to the suburbs to get them charged.”
Across the ocean, Tesla—which China’s largest automaker BYD sees as its top competitor in the EV market—has quietly rolled out a solution to that very problem. The company announced Monday that it would begin installing its Superchargers, which normally dot U.S. highways, in the downtown districts of Boston and Chicago. They’ll be in convenient locations like supermarkets and shopping centers, and they can fully charge a car in under an hour—just enough time for drivers to get their shopping done.
“The technical innovation of electric vehicles is still dominated by the Japanese, the U.S., and Europe, and there’s nothing on the horizon that says the Chinese are about to catch up,” Lee says. But because of its dire need to address air pollution and population density, China has decidedly made electric vehicles a priority for the future.
And don’t expect technical or logistical hurdles to change that. When they run into problems, “the reaction in China is to double down on them,” Lee says. “They don’t quit.”