Our young neighbor, excitedly showing me how she charges up their new, low cost electric car, from their 2-bedroom/1-bathroom, 65-square meter apartment, nearly identical to our floor plan. Her full time job is to calculate the cost of fitting out the interiors of offices and big apartment and home developments. Hubby works for a state owned company that manages low income housing for China’s masses. They share an apartment with her parents. Except for the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, the rest of the apartment is a small convenience store, open about 16 hours a day. Hence, the soft drinks stacked up in their bedroom. Mom and dad’s bedroom has cases of cigarettes! The quintessential, oriental family business: filial piety, hard work, everyday sacrifices and delayed gratification. This could also be said of other cultures around the world, such as Latin America and Africa. (Image by Jeff J. Brown)
I knew something was going on, in our very humble working class neighborhood, when I saw an electric vehicle (EV) being charged up, not 50 meters from our apartment. As I stopped to take pictures, the proud owners, a married couple, in their late 20s, came bounding out, all smiles, to tell me all about their new purchase. A Beijing Auto Company (BAC) EV150, it is a compact sized car, four-door, five-seater. They excitedly went back into their place, to get the key to show me its interior. Looking just like any other car in its class, the only difference is it has a simplified dashboard, since it does not need all the gauges that a gasoline/diesel motor requires.
It comes equipped with a 15 meter charge cord, that plugs into a normal wall plug. A slow charge like this takes eight hours, meaning you leave it on while you sleep. They said a fast charge at a “filling station” takes about one hour, although, from what I’ve read, that sounds on the long side to me. In either case, this model can go 150 kilometers on one charge. Then my shock of shocks, when they told there is a quick charging station just down the street, in the next neighborhood over, Maquanying. A quick charge costs ¥10.00 ($1.50), compared to filling up a similarly sized car with gasoline, costing ¥350 ($58). Assuming a gasoline powered car can go 500 kilometers on one tank, This still comes out to one-tenth the cost for the EV. Of course, an all-night charge at home costs less.
The car’s cost? A market fetching ¥100,000, or $15,000. This does include ongoing government subsidies for the purchase of new EVs. In 2013, a ¥35,000 subsidy was offered for hybrid cars and up to ¥60,000 yuan for 100% EVs, like our neighbors’. Baba Beijing even offered up to a half a million RMB for buses. These subsidies were lowered 5% in 2014, 10% in 2015, and it has been decided to extend them for 2016, after rumors circulated of stopping them for the Year of the Monkey. No one knows for sure, but there is talk in the media of not phasing them out until 2021, after reaching the government’s 2020 EV car sale and charging station construction goals.
Even more market shaking for the average Chinese citizen: China has made EVs exempt from its annual lottery, to get a license plate for a newly purchased car. Four of China’s biggest cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin, use a lottery system to prevent uncontrolled traffic growth on their streets and roads. In these cities, the city government sets a limit on the number of car tags it will issue and you have to sign up for a monthly lottery, crossing your fingers. You might wait months or years, until your name is drawn. For 2016, there are 150,000 car plates offered for the Beijing draw. Now if you want to hit the road today, no problem, just buy an EV and drive your dream car off the sales lot. No waiting.
Invited in and sharing a beer together, when I asked about the number of charging stations in Beijing, my neighbors searched on Baidu Maps, China’s equivalent of Google, and ten stations popped up. Maquanying was not one of them, so I suspect that due to their newness, others are also not yet posted on on the internet. Beijing is huge in numbers and surface area, so there must be more than ten stations, at this point.
The BAC EV150 getting a home charge, in our neighborhood. Their next door neighbor to the right has an appliance repair shop, so it can get pretty junky, with all of his customers’ stuff sitting outside. The two red bags with gold letters on them, outside the car owners’ store, on the left, are ubiquitous during Chinese New Year. Untold millions are brought by citizens visiting their ancestral homes, family or friends, full of gifts on offer. These are usually fruit, nuts, snacks, preserved or dried meats, hard liquor, wine and this year, chicken eggs were all the rage – boxes and boxes of them. Like in the West, gift sets and assorted packaging are very popular. (Image by Jeff J. Brown)
It’s about time. When I wrote my first book, 44 Days, in 2013, there were regular articles in the press about how Beijing was going to have 250,000 EVs on the road by 2020. In 44 Days, I wrote about a fleet of taxis in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Province, that uses quick-swap batteries, exchanged in less than ten minutes, at a battery bank station. It was an impressive operation. This was when Baba Beijing was rolling out the aforementioned subsidies, since at the time, only expensive imported EVs were available, and they wanted to spur local production. These subsidies helped draw in companies like Renault, with its EV Leaf model and the still pricier Tesla. But even with the heavy subsidies, these high cost, imported versions were out of reach for workaday Chinese. After rereading this same “China is going EV!” article every few months for the last three years, and not seeing any sign of them, nor charging stations, I started chalking it up as an urban myth, one of Baba Beijing’s big five-year plan line items, that was not going to bear fruit, at least not for the foreseeable future. Great idea. Just couldn’t pull this one off.
I knew something was up when last year, we met our younger daughter’s (Chara) boyfriend (Johnson Wang). He is getting his Master’s in electrical engineering and his graduating class already has good paying government jobs waiting for them in the EV industry. Their curriculum is tailored for the electronic vehicle sector. At that point, I figured it was still a few years away: planning, design, testing, etc. In any case, it sounds like he has an exciting and interesting career ahead of him in this potentially vast industry.
But what I saw right next to our apartment yesterday means that Beijing’s grandiose plans to develop an EV infrastructure and manufacturing have slowly been developing, stealthily, under the radar. China calls them “new energy vehicles” (NEVs). Last month, January NEV sales increased 144% year-on-year, to 16,100 units, nationwide. This means that even a year ago, Chinese drivers bought 6,600 electric cars in January, 2015.
State Grid, China’s monopoly, people owned electric company and one of the world’s biggest utilities, just announced that it has already, not “going to”, but has already installed rapid charge stations on eight of China’s major highways, which are, of course, also people owned. They cover much of this continent sized country, including Beijing-Shanghai, Shenyang-Haikou, Qingdao-Yinchuan and Beijing-Macao-Hong Kong. Along these eight national expressways, the is to be a charging station every 50 kilometers, with four terminals per station. With what I saw on Baidu Maps for Beijing and now news of the expressway stations, it is safe to assume that China has finally moved from urban myth to critical mass for its ambitious NEV goals. It would also appear that Baba Beijing is being a little more realistic about car sales. In 2013, they were touting 250,000 NEVs on Beijing’s streets alone, by 2020. Now they are talking 300,000 nationwide, in this same time frame. Still, State Grid just announced that by 2020, they will install 10,000 rapid charge stations in 202 cities and along 36,000km of expressways. With affordable, ¥100,000 NEVs now available for the world’s largest and fastest growing middle class, this time, State Grid’s brag looks more like fact, compared to three years ago.
State Grid even has private sector competition, which Baba Beijing is encouraging. A joint venture called China Tower Corporation, which currently manages the networks of China’s big three mobile phone companies (all people owned!), is branching out into NEV stations. Since every mobile phone tower uses a large draw of electricity, it makes sense that they can build nearby NEV stations, for quick charging. Not needing a garage or a convenience store, they don’t need a lot of space, about as much area as a parked car for each charging terminal.
Our neighbor’s cute new BAC EV150, charging up next to our apartment. (Image by Jeff J. Brown)
So, after years of talk, it looks like Baba Beijing is finally walking the walk, or driving the drive, as it were. China is a major user of hydrocarbon energy and many of its big cities suffer from air pollution, with more and more of it being caused by gas guzzling cars clogging the streets. What I am seeing now is very encouraging for China and its growing urban population. And let’s face it these days, what’s good for China is good for the world. Move over General Motors.
A cartoon showing the long arm of rocket fueled “government policy” pushing electric vehicles to the forefront, as a gasoline/diesel car looks helplessly on. (Image by cri.cn)
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