Friday, April 3, 2009

china's push to be electric vehicle leader

Interesting article yesterday at the top of the New York Times home page - China Vies to Be World's Leader in Electric Cars:
TIANJIN, China — Chinese leaders have adopted a plan aimed at turning the country into one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and making it the world leader in electric cars and buses after that.
While it's nice to see China's electric vehicle push making headlines internationally, the article as a whole leaves me a little confused and disappointed. Although much of the article is solid reporting, at times it adopts a strangely negative and sometimes contradictory tone. For example, the author, Keith Bradsher, writes (emphasis mine):
China’s intention, in addition to creating a world-leading industry that will produce jobs and exports, is to reduce urban pollution and decrease its dependence on oil...But electric vehicles may do little to clear the country’s smog-darkened sky or curb its rapidly rising emissions of global warming gases. China gets three-fourths of its electricity from coal, which produces more soot and more greenhouse gases than other fuels.
However, this "may do little" claim is supported by the following paragraph, which directly contradicts it:
A report by McKinsey & Company last autumn estimated that replacing a gasoline-powered car with a similar-size electric car in China would reduce greenhouse emissions by only 19 percent. It would reduce urban pollution, however, by shifting the source of smog from car exhaust pipes to power plants, which are often located outside cities.
"Only" 19% is not a "little." Plus, this number will almost certainly grow as China's power sector improves efficiency and diversifies away from coal. As for pollution, the McKinsey study supports the exact goal of the Chinese government - reducing urban air pollution. Why then, does Mr. Bradsher nay say the environmental impacts of electrifying the vehicle fleet?

Moving on, Mr. Bradsher accurately describes some of the details of the program, and makes some key points about why electric vehicles may be viable in China whereas they have struggled in America:
Electric cars have several practical advantages in China. Intercity driving is rare. Commutes are fairly short and frequently at low speeds because of traffic jams. So the limitations of all-electric cars — the latest models in China have a top speed of 60 miles an hour and a range of 120 miles between charges — are less of a problem.

First-time car buyers also make up four-fifths of the Chinese market, and these buyers have not yet grown accustomed to the greater power and range of gasoline-powered cars.
(That final sentence is key, and something I'll make a note to blog on another time.)

In the final part of the article, Mr. Bradsher mentions that "rechargeable lithium-ion batteries also have a poor reputation in China," but then goes on to say, "these safety problems have been associated with lithium-ion cobalt batteries, however, not the more chemically stable lithium-ion phosphate batteries now being adapted to automotive use." Then why does he bring it up? Is there some evidence that Chinese consumers are reluctant to buy electric vehicles because of battery safety? If there is, he doesn't mention it.

In the end, I'm just not sure what to make of the article. The overall tone seems to be some combination of "lookout America, China is going to leap frog you in this promising clean tech area" and "but don't worry too much, even if they do succeed (which they might not), the impacts on GHG and air pollution reduction won't be that big."

From the perspectives of reducing oil consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollution, I think almost everyone agrees that electrifying the vehicle fleet is a good thing. So good that many (including myself) see the electrification of the transportation sector as a core sustainability solution. I need to make time to prepare a longer post on this, but for now, see Joe Romm's post: Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution, nationally and globally.

Related news from yesterday:
- China Car Times reports that Shenzhen will become the first city to offer subsidies to private buyers, though I haven't yet found the original source material to support this.
- NEEDigest's excellent auto zone has a great comparison of companies racing to offer EV's to the Chinese market.

Related post from this blog: subsidies for energy saving and new energy vehicles

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