Electric road

China's charge into an electric future

China has far more electric vehicles on its roads than any other country on earth. While the country intends to keep the pace of manufacturing growing, can its charging infrastructure keep up?

By Soh Chin Ong on Aug 4, 2019

Sun Dazhi is a businessman from Tianjin, one of the busiest port cities in northern China. Most mornings he charges his electric car at a Shell retail station on the outskirts of an industrial and commercial area. 

He waits half an hour for his car to power up. Then he heads to work at the city centre, where entry to petrol and diesel cars is restricted but electric vehicles have unlimited access. 

Since 2009, China has offered incentives like this to encourage people to buy electric cars. It has also given subsidies to manufacturers and made it harder for people to get petrol car licences in major cities like Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai.

As a result, China's electric vehicle population has increased exponentially, at an annual compound growth rate of 118% since 2011. However, its charging infrastructure struggles to keep pace. 

So, while Sun enjoys the quiet ride and the knowledge that his locally made Geely Emgrand sedan gives off no tailpipe emissions, he will not take his car cross country. 

He suffers from range anxiety, a fear of running out of power because of insufficient or inadequate charging facilities. 

And as China's electric vehicle population grows, this anxiety is a key challenge its government needs to address. 

Sun Dazhi is a daily electric car user, but suffers from “range anxiety” for longer distances
Sun Dazhi is a daily electric car user, but suffers from range anxiety for longer distances

Continued growth

Today, China is the world's largest market for electric vehicles by volume, with an estimated 2.3 million vehicles. Serving these vehicles are 275,000 public chargers and 1.5 million private chargers, according to figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

However, by 2020, China will need 500,000 public chargers and 4.3 million private ones for its projected population of 5 million electric vehicles, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, its economic planning body. China will face several challenges getting them in place.

One of these is a lack of proper infrastructure. Less than 40% of Chinese homes have access to dedicated parking spots, making charging in private homes difficult.

"In cities, many people live in high rises," says Sacha Scheffer, an IEA analyst. "Even with private parking lots, installing a home charger could take months and requires permission from local grid companies or municipal offices.''

Developing a public charging network is, therefore, crucial, he adds. It is something the Chinese government can set in motion quickly with state policies and business mandates. 

For example, the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), which manages the country's power supply, is collaborating with private energy companies to install charging facilities at existing petrol stations along highways. 

The Shell Recharge facility in Tianjin, where Sun charges his car, is an example of such a partnership. It is Shell's first electric vehicle charging station in China.

China is the world's largest market for electric vehicles by volume, with an estimated 2.3 million vehicles. Serving these vehicles are 275,000 public chargers and 1.5 million private chargers

International Energy Agency

Proper planning

However, just increasing the number of charging stations is not enough, says Dr Wang Xiaoming, a mobility expert with the Institute of Science and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a think tank. 

"Over the last few years, many charging facilities have been built, but mainly in the major cities. The chargers are not distributed evenly across the country,'' he says.

This will change when China issues its next five-year plan for socio-economic development in 2021. That plan, which Dr Wang is supporting in terms of research, will feature a detailed proposal to improve and expand charging facilities.

It will likely include a large number of private chargers, to be installed at homes, offices and malls; public charging facilities along highways so that drivers like Sun can go longer distances in their electric vehicles; as well as battery-swap facilities which eliminate the waiting time needed for a vehicle to charge. 

While the Chinese government is already committing some US$43 billion between 2016 and 2020 to infrastructure, the plan should also encourage the private sector to pitch in, says Dr Wang. 

"Digitalisation, artificial intelligence and the inter-operability of platforms will play an important role,'' he adds. 

In an encouraging sign in January, the country's two state-owned power suppliers, SGCC and China Southern Power Grid, joined private companies Qingdao Teld New Energy and Jiangsu Star Charge to form China's largest operator of charging stations.

The joint venture now controls 80% of the country's charging points and is launching an app that will allow drivers to locate charging stations and make payments.

And under an innovative model, property developer China Evergrande, which has branched into the production of electric vehicles, will join forces with SGCC to turn drivers into electricity providers.

The two organisations will develop a vehicle-to-grid technology that will allows drivers to sell electricity from their charged batteries back to the grid. 

 tianjin financial district in nightfall, china
Tianjin is one of the busiest port cities in northern China

World leader

"By 2030, China will remain the undisputed world leader in electric vehicles, with Europe very close behind it," says IEA's Scheffer. "But a lot will depend on how it consolidates and implements its policies in the next few years and on technology and policy developments in other key markets.''

In the meantime, drivers like Sun will have to manage. The furthest he will take his electric car is to Beijing, a distance of 120km. "For longer journeys, I rely on my second car, which runs on petrol,'' he says.