China Is Racing to Electrify Its Future

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“China has gone from having virtually no electric vehicles to having almost half of the world’s stock of electric passenger vehicles, and much more in terms of buses, trucks and two-wheeled vehicles,” Mazzoco says. “This was a bit of a surprise, even for Chinese policymakers.”

At times, this has meant that the cargo infrastructure has struggled to keep up. Shenzhen, home of EV and battery manufacturer BYD, offered a first case study. In 2017, all of the city’s buses were electric, and their taxi fleet was fully electric a year later. At first, there weren’t enough chargers to keep up with the new demand.

As of January, government guidelines require that each parking space in a new residential building have load-bearing capacities. Some cities had already demanded it and subsidized the cost of adding chargers to older buildings and parking lots.

But driving habits in China are generally different from those in the West. Chinese car owners depend more on public cargo infrastructure than their Western counterparts, Hove says. China’s two main state-owned electric companies, State Grid and Southern Grid, maintain networks of high-speed charging stations along the roads, while private companies typically set up facilities in cities and towns. .

In older neighborhoods, charging electric vehicles can put a strain on the grid, and utility companies have been reluctant to make upgrades. Instead, they direct freight providers to build stations where the network is strong enough, locations that may be less convenient for drivers. But the chargers along roads and public stations are frustratingly slow, Hove explains. Many outlets billed as fast chargers offered a 50 kW load, which can take up to an hour. Road stations should be equipped with chargers of 100 kW or higher, he says, that can replace a car in as little as 15 minutes.

Progress in building cargo infrastructure in China may have been rapid, but clumsy payment systems and broken chargers can still slow down a journey. In 2019, Hove drove 900 miles from Beijing to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, in a NIO ES6 EV, a mid-size SUV. On this route, he loaded mainly at State Grid points along roads and private points in cities. “The load was a team effort,” he says, and sometimes required several people to scan QR codes or phone calls to station operators. At one point, his car had to be towed a bit out of the way due to a broken charging station. Another station he found in Beijing was so underused that weeds grew among the loaders. (The problem of poorly maintained stations is not unique to China.)

Chinese drivers are less likely to make long road trips like the one Hove tried, which can make autonomy anxiety less worrisome as electric vehicles proliferate. This is in part thanks to the extensive train network, which includes more than 20,000 miles of high-speed rail. A train from Beijing to Shanghai, for example, takes passengers between cities in about four hours at a top speed of 217 mph. The journey from Hove from Beijing to Hohhot would take about five hours by road, and half that time by high-speed train. As a result, most people use their cars to travel to cities or short distances and catch a train or plane for longer trips.

Touch screen of an electric vehicle showing a map of NIO stations around Shanghai, China.

Photography: Raul Ariano

Instead of waiting for drivers to connect and wait, some companies are experimenting with battery exchange stations. They work a bit like car washes, with people driving their electric vehicles with almost depleted batteries. A robotic system changes the battery in about five minutes while the driver waits in the car. The concept has been introduced in other parts of the world, but first took off in China, where it has been popular with truck and taxi fleet owners.

NIO, which somehow pretends to be a Chinese version of Tesla, has turned battery exchange into a luxury service, says Jonas Nahm, assistant professor of energy, resources and the environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The company currently has 949 stations across China, with plans to triple that figure by 2025. Instead of buying batteries, more than 60 percent of NIO drivers in China use their “battery-like” leasing program. to service, ”which starts at about $ 150 a month. for a number of interchanges, with stations concentrated in major cities where NIO cars are popular. To further alleviate range anxiety, NIO offers permanent, flexible upgrades of higher-capacity batteries and emergency charging on the road.

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