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Why China is Ahead of the United States in Electric Vehicle Charging Sweepstakes?

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China and the United States are among biggest markets for electric vehicles and both are expected to drive demand for electric vehicles in the future. Much, however, depends on the prevalence and availability of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. According to a 2016 survey by consulting firm McKinsey Inc., consumers rank the absence of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as the third-most serious bottleneck to greater EV adoption, behind price and driving range.

So, how are both countries approaching the setup of electric vehicle charging infrastructure?

A new report out from Columbia Center for Energy Policy attempts to provide answers to that question by comparing the current electric vehicle infrastructure in both countries. Their approaches are a function of their respective economic systems. China has a national policy to encourage the setup of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. As part of this policy, government bodies, regional and national, provide funding and establish standards for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. On the other hand, the United States has largely left the dissemination and setup of electric vehicle charging infrastructure to private players. Not surprisingly, China’s approach to installing electric vehicle infrastructure has been more coordinated and planned as compared to the United States.

Towards the end of 2017, the number of electric vehicle charging stations in China jumped by 51 percent from the previous year to 450,000 units. There are already currently 121,212 electric vehicle chargers operated by independent charging networks in China. With 5,600 stations or 24% of the nation’s total charging stations, California is a leader in the number of charging stations within the United States. Only three other states - Texas, New York, and Florida - had more than 1,000 charging stations. The nation’s average is 450 charging stations and 1,300 charging spots. More tellingly, California has 25-30 electric vehicles per charging station while China has eight electric vehicles to a charging station.    

The difference in approach is reflected in the specifics of charging infrastructure. China has a nationwide EV fast charging standard in the form of GB/T while the United States has three charging standards for electric vehicles. One of them is private (Tesla) and provides a significant competitive advantage to the Palo Alto-based company. The other two are CHAdeMO, which is a standard developed in Japan and used for electric vehicles made by companies based there, and CCS SAE Combo, a standard that was jointly developed by European and American car makers.

But American respondents to a survey conducted by the Institute stated that they did not find the absence of a national standard problematic. There are two reasons for this. The first one has to do with the location of charging which, for most Americans, is either the home or the workplace and utilizes Level 1 charger and Level 2 chargers. The second is the interoperability available to electric vehicle owners, thanks to adaptors.

Then there is the fact electric utilities in China play an extremely important role in the development of a charging network. While the number of chargers developed by China’s two state grid companies lags those of independent charging networks, they also have additional responsibilities. The grid companies are responsible for upgrading distribution-level infrastructure for privately-owned chargers from their social responsibility budget. Here, in the United States, utilities are testing pilot projects in various states before rolling out charging stations.

Again, California is a leader in this regard. The Golden State’s utilities have together won approval to install 12,500 chargers throughout the state. Utilities in other states are making piecemeal efforts to catch up. For example, Kansas Power & Light has added 1,000 chargers to its network but is mired in controversy in its efforts to recoup costs. But that figure pales in comparison to the plans by utilities in China, who plan to add 500,000 charging stations by 2020.  

You can find the detailed report here.

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