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Transportation | Ecotrope

How China Is Promoting Electric Cars – And Why

Professor Sun Zechang talked about the state of the electric vehicle industry in China at Portland State University today.

Professor Sun Zechang talked about the state of the electric vehicle industry in China at Portland State University today.

I went to a thought-provoking presentation at Portland State University today. Automotives Professor Sun Zechang of TongJi University in Shanghai spoke in Mandarin about the advances in electric vehicle development in China while his daughter, Stella Sun, translated.

There were about 30 people in the audience, many of whom had questions such as: Does China’s political regime have an advantage over the U.S. in promoting electric cars? And if electric cars take off in China, won’t they be running on coal-fired electricity? Is that any better for the environment?

Here are some highlights from the presentation:

  • China is definitely working to promote electric cars. One of the key milestones for the country to showcase its electric vehicles was the 2008 Olympics, where 50-passenger electric buses carted visitors around Beijing. Another was the 2010 World Expo, where a Chinese fleet of 500 “clean vehicles” included electric VIP cars, electric sightseeing buses and fuel cell cars.
  • China made a big push in 2008 to put 1,000 electric cars in 10 cities to promote electric cars and raise awareness. The program grew to 25 cities with 12,000 electric cars, Zechang said.
  • China reimburses electric car buyers for 30 percent of the price; In the U.S., the federal $7,500 tax credit usually only covers 15-20 percent of the cost of a new electric car.

China is actively promoting electrified transportation – in part because the country has more coal than it has oil to fuel its growing number of cars.

China is actively promoting electrified transportation – in part because the country has more coal than it has oil to fuel its growing number of cars.

  • The Chinese government has specific goals for electrifying transportation – both for energy security and to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It also sees electric cars as a way to reach its goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions in vehicles, Zechang said.
  • China has a production capacity goal of 2 million electric and hybrid electric cars per year and a total sales goal of 5 million by 2020 (by comparison, less than 18,000 electric cars sold in the U.S. in 2011). It also has standards for EVs and hybrids for speed, range and cost.

“It can’t be achieved under current technology, so we expect to develop the technology to achieve these goals,” Zechang said through his interpreter.

However, in its latest five-year plan for transportation, China is focusing more on hybrid cars in the short-term with plans to expand all-electric cars down the road, he said. Initially, the goal will be to reduce consumption, but long-term the goal is to displace the traditional fuel needs with pure electric cars and fuel cell cars.

The government projects the number of cars in China will be importing 70 percent of the fuel it needs for all its gasoline-powered cars by 2020. However, most of the electricity for charging electric cars would come from coal-fired power, said Zechang.

“China has a great coal reserve, but very few oil reserves, so this will be a benefit to our energy security,” he said through his interpreter. “I don’t know if you find that satisfactory.”

To tackle the problem of coal-fired pollution, China is working on developing carbon capture technology. Reducing pollution from mobile transportation is a more urgent priority, he said.

According to this article in the Economist, China is falling short of its targets for electric and hybrid cars. Sales of EVs are way off the mark for reaching a 2015 goal of selling 500,000 electric cars per year: “Barely 8,000 electric cars were sold last year, almost all going to government fleets,” the Economist reports:

“The chief snags are cost and convenience. Despite lavish subsidies—in Shenzhen, consumers were offered 120,000 yuan per vehicle—electric cars still cost more than the petrol-powered sort. The lack of recharging stations also hurts. Hardly 16,000 were installed last year, a tenth of the official target.”

Jeff Allen, executive director of the electric car advocacy group Drive Oregon, said the similarities between the challenges China and the U.S. are facing when it comes to promoting EVs.

“What was striking to me was how similar things are,” he said after Zechang’s presentation. “Some of the challenges are the same, such as: How do you get people to try something new?”

A lot of people think the Chinese government can just tell people to buy electric cars and make it happen, he noted, “but it doesn’t work that way.”

Allen said Oregon may have more people willing to try something different, but China has a lot of technical expertise in the electric car research and development fields.

He helped organize Zechang’s presentation and said he’s looking for opportunities to trade expertise, research projects and even electric cars themselves, with China.

Rob Wilcox, a Portland engineering consultant who came to to the talk, said China isn’t as far along in developing an electric car market as the U.S., but mandated goals for electric cars could help close the gap.

“They’re producing less than Tesla, Chevy and Nissan,” he said. “But on the other hand, they have very aggressive goals to have some pretty impressive numbers of cars in the future.”

John Thornton, an energy efficiency consultant at the event, said the difference in political structure in the U.S. and China makes the two countries hard to compare when it comes to electric vehicle policies.

“China has a pretty different industry and role of government,” he said. “They have high aspirations and some better policy mechanisms to put those in place.”

Portland State University economics professor Jenny Hsing-I Liu said the industries in both the U.S. and China are facing a lot of uncertainty about the demand for electric cars.

She said it seems like China might be surpassing the U.S. in developing technology for the next generation of electric vehicles, but that EVs are still a risky business.

“It seems like China is really focused on energy security versus environmental degradation,” she said. “They’re putting all this money into cars that will depend on this electricity without a practical plan for dealing with carbon emissions from coal. What if carbon capture falls through? Plus, the government is spending all this money to show they have this capability but they don’t know where the demand is going to come from.”

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