Electric car charging stations are starting to go up all over China. When they do the transition will begin.
I was walking near my apartment in Xiamen a couple of months ago when I was struck by the appearance of something new. It was a charging station for electric vehicles that was positioned next to a city bus station.
The charging station was laid out on a broad sidewalk like a small parking lot and there were around twenty charging areas crammed in together. Each area had space for one car that was marked out with a square outline painted on the pavement with an electric charging box positioned on a pole in front of it. The charging boxes themselves had a place for a money card and a hose which connects with the vehicle. It was a rather simple, DIY affair — apparently you just pull up in your car, swipe your card, and plug in. A half hour later you pick up your now fully charged car and drive away.
Now, there are the things that technically exist in a country and then there are the things that are so common that you actually see them as you travel around. While China has been putting up charging stations for electric vehicles for some years now they’ve only recently entered into the later phase. These stations will more than likely become a ubiquitous piece of infrastructure throughout the country — far more common than gas stations.
China had dived into the electric car market with full force. The country wants five million electric vehicles on the road by 2020, and they are giving out massive subsidies to make this happen. If you want to buy a pure electric car here the government will give you upwards of US$10,000-US$20,000 to do so and won’t even take a cut for taxes. But even with these massive subsidies, as of the end of last year there were only around 70,000 electric vehicles in use around China, with most of them being taxis and buses.
The problem is that the consumer is concerned and confused about where they can recharge these electric cars, and it has become very clear that in order for a critical mass of people to want to buy and actually drive them a vast network of charging stations needs to be created nationwide. If you can’t charge an electric car then it’s really nothing other than an over glorified place to sit down. To help clear the inertia the central government pledged US$16 billion to build the requisite charging stations.
And just like that they are being built.
The first charging station went up in Xiamen in 2012, but the movement hasn’t really taken hold until now. There are now plans to erect at least 15 new charging stations around the city, and together with nearby cities like Fuzhou and Longyan over 100 more will be installed. A new network of 50 charging stations — one every 25 km — just went up along the 1,260 km route between Beijing and Shanghai, which allows electric drivers to traverse these cities without anxiety of running out of juice. Other networks totally 19,000 km of highways are also in the works.
On this wave, hybrid and fully electric buses are also being introduced throughout the country. Xiamen put 300 into service this year — they are green and have “ECO” written in big letters down their sides, of course.
The electric car transition is happening in China. You can walk through the streets and watch the movement growing. Charging stations are popping up, electric buses are picking you up, and taxis are plugging in rather than filling up.
China doesn’t view clean energy as a sort of economic buzzkill but as a new financial opportunity to exploit. The country is attempting to lure investors and entrepreneurs into cleaner types of industries simply by making them as profitable as possible, with the hope that they will naturally just displace their dirtier predecessors. While this may seem like too simplistic of a way to spark this transition, it is working. In less than a decade China became a global leader in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, producing more GW of renewable energy than the total power output of every other country in the world except the USA. China is leading global movement in cleaner energies because they already have the manufacturing capacity, the know-how, the consumer demand, and a government that’s willing to spend whatever it takes to make it happen. Once a reasonable network of charging stations are in place and it is no longer a hassle to drive an electric car, China’s streets will be full of them.
There are political ramifications at work here as well. The Chinese government isn’t just pumping billions of dollars into supporting the electric car industry just because it thinks it’s a dandy idea. Air pollution in China is now political, there is a growing number of people who have become very conscious of the reasons for and ramifications of their country’s horrendous air quality, and if the government wishes to maintain legitimacy it needs to clean the air of its big cities as fast as possible. Another reason is that by converting to electric transport China reduces its need for foreign derived oil and the amount of leverage that oil producing countries can exert over them . . .
Although this movement towards electric vehicles should ultimately cut down on emissions it’s not without its environmental costs. It must be stated that 70 to 80% of the electricity used to power these electric cars comes from burning coal, and the manufacturing and disposal/ recycling sites for their batteries creates another ecological catastrophe all its own.
Though these electric cars do allow China to move forward with their policy of pushing sources of pollution farther and farther away from major population centers, they are adding to the transformation of the countryside and hinterlands into irrefutable wastelands. So while Beijing and Shanghai will benefit from cleaner air as a result of electric vehicles more remote parts of the country are going to feel the burden of their pollution.
For the record, I have yet to see anyone actually use the recharging station near my apartment in Xiamen.