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China Tackles the Electric Car at the Plug

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

by Keith Bradsher, NEW YORK TIMES, December 26, 2011

image Three years ago, as part of its green-energy policy, the Chinese government set an ambitious goal: by the end of 2011, the nation would be able to produce at least 500,000 hybrid or all-electric cars and buses a year.

With only about a week to go, it is clear China will fall far short of that target. Despite dozens of electric-vehicle demonstration projects around the country, analysts put China’s actual annual production capacity at only several thousand hybrid and all-electric cars and buses.

“It’s pretty trivial at this stage — they hardly sell any,” said Lin Huaibin, the manager of China vehicle sales forecasts at IHS Automotive, a global consulting firm.

Obstacles include continued technological hurdles, disputes over technology transfers by multinational automakers, and a broad wariness by the Chinese public regarding alternative-technology cars.

But it would be shortsighted to count out China’s electric car efforts just yet. Only a few months ago Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called for Beijing to create a new “road map” for energy-saving vehicles.

Unlike in other nations, where automakers are leading the push for electric vehicles, in China the effort is being led largely by one of the country’s most powerful industries — the state-run electric companies that operate the national power grid. With China expected to surpass the United States in the number of all vehicles on the road by as early as 2020, the government-run utilities see it as their job to provide an alternative to imported oil as a way to power several hundred million cars, trucks and buses.

This month in this sprawling southern industrial city, for example, the giant China Southern Power Grid company opened a sales and service center for electric cars.

The new three-story building, resembling a giant lizard egg of lime-green glass, is a showcase for technology supplied by Better Place, a start-up based in Palo Alto, Calif. Under the Better Place business model, customers do not recharge their electric cars but instead periodically stop at an electric filling station to swap their nearly depleted batteries for freshly charged ones.

And just because there are no customers kicking the tires now doesn’t mean China Southern Grid, as it is commonly known, isn’t in the electric-vehicle game for the long haul. The power company and Better Place are in talks to sell electric cars to the Guangzhou municipal government and to taxi fleets, according to Shai Agassi, Better Place’s founder and chief executive.

The demonstration project showcases imported Renault Laguna sedans and Nissan Dualis crossover utility vehicles whose gasoline-fueled power trains have been replaced with electric motors and swappable batteries. But the companies are in talks with Chinese automakers to produce battery-powered cars, for which no price has been set.

In a separate bet, meanwhile, China Southern Grid has also built recharging stations in another big southern industrial city, Shenzhen, for electric buses and cars made by a Chinese automaker, BYD, which has Warren E. Buffett among its investors.

Though automakers in other countries have supplied charging equipment to be installed at homes and parking lots, China’s power industry has already made it clear that it wants to dictate when and how plug-in gasoline-electric hybrids and all-electric cars are charged, by owning the charging equipment and setting technical standards. [Read rest of story]

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