China’s new energy vehicle industry is shifting into high gear. According to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, carmakers sold more than 3.5 million NEVs in the country in 2021; for comparison, the United States sold roughly 1.2 million NEVs last year. As part of a push to cut emissions, city governments around China have imposed onerous restrictions on when and where fossil fuel-powered vehicles can be driven and streamlined the registration process for NEVs, resulting in a sales boom.
Outside of major cities, however, driving electric vehicles can be a frustrating experience, mostly due to the lack of adequate charging infrastructure. As in the United States and Europe, the problem of “range anxiety,” or licheng jiaolü, is a source of significant stress for Chinese NEV owners. The infrastructure problem is especially acute during the Lunar New Year and other traditional holidays, when many Chinese drive back to their rural hometowns to celebrate, resulting in traffic jams at the handful of charging stations scattered along the country’s freeways.
This phenomenon is widespread enough that last year, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission published a list of opinions calling on governments nationwide to commit to “the continued improvement of battery charging and replacement facilities and services.”
It was not the first time the Chinese government has attempted to boost the country’s NEV infrastructure. Over the past 10 years, China’s charging station industry has struggled to keep pace with the growth of the NEV market. A recent domestic media investigation found that, in 2019 alone, 50% of registered charging companies went bankrupt or left the industry, while those that survived reported difficulties maintaining profitability. In a planning document from 2015, the central government expressed hope that by 2020, there would be almost one charging station for every electric vehicle nationwide. Five years later, the real number was closer to one charging station for every three cars.
Industry stakeholders disagree over who bears responsibility for the current situation. One contributing factor is the country’s weak power grid. In old residential neighborhoods and university dormitories, it’s already common for property managers to restrict the output of electrical appliances as to avoid overtaxing the wiring. The vast majority of urban Chinese live in apartment buildings rather than detached houses, and grid corporations worry about what will happen when everyone needs to charge their cars overnight.
Aside from concerns about grid stability, power corporations also want to ensure the expansion of charging networks benefits their commercial interests. This means preventing the emergence of a distributed power generation market that would challenge their ability to profit from the development of new charging stations. Compounding the issue, regional governments have introduced policies controlling how much public charging stations can charge drivers, further shrinking the pie being fought over by power grids and station service providers.
Meanwhile, NEV companies are engaged in an intense tug-of-war with battery manufacturers and charging stations. Batteries account for a large percentage of the cost of manufacturing electric vehicles, and the relationship between car companies, battery manufacturers, and charging stations is both cooperative and competitive, with car brands occasionally playing the latter two off against each other. The Chinese new-energy vehicle company Nio has started promoting a “battery swap” model, for example, encouraging drivers to simply swap empty batteries for full ones on long journeys. Although it’s unclear just how viable this approach is, it nonetheless offers a potential alternative to the current charging model.
Then there’s the hodgepodge of charging stations currently competing for consumers and power supplies. A slow charging station using alternating current requires several hours to charge a battery. Relatively simple to install, even in apartment parking lots, they could potentially cause grid stability issues at night. Faster direct current stations such as Tesla’s can charge a battery enough to power travel for 200 kilometers in just 10 minutes, but they are expensive and subject to wild swings in demand that make them risky investments outside cities. In peak seasons of intercity travel, charging stations along expressways are often overwhelmed. During the rest of the year, however, researchers found that most are in use less than 10% of the time.
Improving China’s charging infrastructure is essentially a matter of systems engineering. Transitioning to cleaner energy sources will require a greater degree of coordination between power grids and car companies, battery companies and power charging stations, and centralized planning and market forces.
To start, however, policymakers can ensure stations are built and operated efficiently. Charging stations in residential communities should use network technology to charge vehicles at different times throughout the night; during the day, restaurant and shopping mall parking lots can offer rapid charging services to customers. This will spread out the load on power grids and increase the overall efficiency of charging systems, reducing waste. Traffic data should be leveraged to develop a smarter plan for the distribution of slow and fast charging equipment in and around cities.
Some experiments are already bearing fruit. For example, the southern city of Foshan set up so-called taxi posthouses offering a range of services, including parking, charging, repairs, as well as food and beverages, to drivers for ride-hailing apps. A similar model could be applied in older residential neighborhoods with weak power girds or insufficient parking.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that the ongoing transition to NEVs offers us an opportunity, not just to revamp our fuel infrastructure, but also to rethink how we get around. The development of electric vehicles and charging stations should serve to reduce pollution, not merely shift it. China should develop a clean and efficient energy charging system for people who need cars, but it’s also worth asking how policymakers can help more people enjoy their neighborhoods and cities without ever having to get behind the wheel.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.