Charge of the clean-car brigade

As the pedal hits the me­tal in a mo­tor­ing rev­o­lu­tion, bumpy roads lie ahead, but so do clear skies, Du Xiaoy­ing re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS -

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to bring clear, blue skies and clean, fresh air to ci­ties na­tion­wide on a more per­ma­nent ba­sis in the years to come. One way of help­ing de­liver them: elec­tric cars.

The goal, to have 5 mil­lion elec­tric ve­hi­cles on the na­tion’s roads by 2020, thus mak­ing China a pace­set­ter in the field, is a tall or­der, but mea­sures now be­ing un­folded make it clear that the gov­ern­ment means busi­ness.

Such suc­cess will not only help rid big ci­ties of smog, but also put the coun­try on track to honor a pledge it made a year ago to re­duce its car­bon diox­ide emis­sions per unit of GDP by 60 per­cent to 65 per­cent of the 2005 level by 2030.

In Septem­ber, the State Coun­cil is­sued a set of di­rec­tives to speed up the adop­tion of what in China are called new en­ergy ve­hi­cles. They in­clude cars that are fully or partly pow­ered by elec­tric­ity, such as bat­tery elec­tric and plug-in hy­brids.

An ex­ec­u­tive meet­ing of the State Coun­cil called for more financial in­cen­tives for any­one us­ing or buy­ing new en­ergy ve­hi­cles, for more re­search and de­vel­op­ment of those that use bat­ter­ies and fuel cells, and for lo­cal gov­ern­ments to pro­mote the pur­chase of new en­ergy ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing re­scind­ing any mea­sures de­ter­ring peo­ple from buy­ing them.

China be­came the world’s big­gest car mar­ket five years ago, and the coun­try’s new en­ergy car mar­ket now seems to be on the cusp of pulling off a sim­i­lar feat. In the first seven months of this year about 90,000 new en­ergy ve­hi­cles were sold in China, com­pared with about 63,000 in the United States, the China As­so­ci­a­tion of Auto Man­u­fac­tur­ers said.

“China has the po­ten­tial to be the world’s largest elec­tric car mar­ket,” said Dong Yang, vice-chair­man and sec­re­tary­gen­eral of the as­so­ci­a­tion. The coun­try’s new en­ergy ve­hi­cle mar­ket is mov­ing from a “pri­mary stage” to a “fast-grow­ing stage”, he said.

Given that more than 23 mil­lion petrol-driven ve­hi­cles were sold in China last year, those num­bers may seem mi­nus­cule, but the rise in sales ap­pears to be gath­er­ing pace. Last year 74,800 new en­ergy ve­hi­cles were sold, triple the num­ber the year be­fore — as was the num­ber of cars pro­duced — and sales in the first seven months of this year rose 260 per­cent on the cor­re­spond­ing pe­riod last year. ea­ger to turn this rev­o­lu­tion into a money-spin­ner.

If that is not enough for the mu­nic­i­pal­ity to grap­ple with as it coaxes peo­ple to buy elec­tric ve­hi­cles, it must also keep a tight rein on the num­bers. If it does not, all it will pro­duce is more choke points on the cap­i­tal’s al­ready choked roads.

On this mat­ter the rise in the num­bers of cars on the na­tion’s roads over the past 20 years are elo­quent. Last Novem­ber the Traf­fic Con­trol Bureau of the Min­istry of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity said the coun­try had 154 mil­lion pri­vately owned mo­tor ve­hi­cles, dou­ble the num­ber just five years ear­lier, and 10 times the num­ber in 2000.

Though thou­sands of kilo­me­ters of roads have been added to the na­tional road net­work, the growth in the num­ber of mo­tor ve­hi­cles has far out­stripped their abil­ity to cope.

In Oc­to­ber 2008 Bei­jing took de­ci­sive ac­tion with a sys­tem un­der which on one work­day a week be­tween 7am and 8pm, cars whose li­cense plates end with a par­tic­u­lar digit are barred from us­ing the roads. Then, in Jan­uary 2011, it in­tro­duced a sys­tem of bi­monthly lot­ter­ies for those want­ing to buy a new car, a mea­sure that Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shang­hai and Tian­jin have also adopted.

In the first bal­lot in Bei­jing, 190,000 or so mo­torists put their names for­ward for about 17,500 li­cense plates, giv­ing them a 1 in 9 chance of suc­cess. The num­bers of those throw­ing their names into the hat has bal­looned, and in Au­gust more than 3 mil­lion hope­fuls vied for just 20,000 plates, giv­ing them a less than 1 in 190 chance of suc­cess.

With di­min­ish­ing odds of win­ning, des­per­ate ap­pli­cants are now turn­ing to the sep­a­rate lot­tery for new en­ergy car li­cense plates, whose odds are a lot kin­der. In Au­gust, 8,737 peo­ple en­tered a bal­lot for 3,333 li­cense plates, giv­ing them a bet­ter than 1 in 3 chance of suc­cess. How­ever, as the queues for th­ese li­cense plates lengthen, so do the odds of win­ning.

In April, Bei­jing, in an at­tempt to make new en­ergy ve­hi­cles more at­trac­tive, ex­empted pure elec­tric cars from the day-of-use ra­tioning sys­tem. The re­search com­pany Nielsen and the China As­so­ci­a­tion of Auto Man­u­fac­tur­ers said in a re­port in Au­gust that the more gen­er­ous ap­pli­ca­tion of li­cense plate rules for new en­ergy ve­hi­cles would fa­vor­ably in­flu­ence the de­ci­sion of 16 per­cent of 700 re­spon­dents on whether to buy a new en­ergy car.

How­ever, de­spite all the best ef­forts by author­i­ties to make the cars at­trac­tive, would-be buy­ers con­tinue to be de­terred by their cost, the fre­quent need to recharge and the lack of charg­ing sta­tions.

“For ex­am­ple, you can­not drive an all-elec­tric ve­hi­cle from Bei­jing to Shang­hai and rely on charg­ing along the way,” wrote pro­fes­sor Jochem Heiz­mann, a mem­ber of Volk­swa­gen’s group board of man­age­ment with re­spon­si­bil­ity for China, in an es­say in May.

“This is be­cause the in­fras­truc­ture has not been com­pleted yet — and even once it is, the stan­dard may not be uni­ver­sal. To this end, we need de­pend­able, sta­ble tech­nolo­gies. This way, in the fu­ture we can chan­nel our de­vel­op­ment in­vest­ments in the right di­rec­tion and con­trib­ute to­wards ad­vanc­ing plug-in hy­brid tech­nolo­gies.”

In early Oc­to­ber the State Coun­cil is­sued a direc­tive that calls for ac­cel­er­at­ing the in­stal­la­tion of charg­ing sta­tions. It re­quires that newly built res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties either in­stall recharg­ing fa­cil­i­ties in their car parks or have all the equip­ment in place to do so.

Driv­ers are not only hav­ing their pa­tience tested but also their pock­ets stretched, too, by pric­ing rules that aim to make own­ing and run­ning such in­fras­truc­ture an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion for in­vestors. Since those poli­cies were in­tro­duced in June, prices for charg­ing ve­hi­cles have risen and the eco­nomic at­trac­tion of the cars has lost some shine.

In Bei­jing the up­per limit for elec­tric­ity charges per kilo­watt-hour is 15 per­cent of that day’s max­i­mum re­tail price per liter of No 92 petrol in Bei­jing.

Against that, last year the State Coun­cil an­nounced that it would make buy­ing new en­ergy ve­hi­cles more at­trac­tive by ex­empt­ing them from sales taxes levied on mo­tor ve­hi­cles. That comes on top of re­bates rang­ing be­tween 31,500 yuan ($4,960) and 54,000 yuan for pure elec­tric cars, de­pend­ing on how far they can travel on a sin­gle charge, and 31,500 yuan for a plug-in hy­brid.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments are also dol­ing out at­trac­tive re­bates to would-be own­ers.

Hao Yan con­trib­ute to the story.

Con­tact the writer at dux­i­aoy­ing@chi­


An elec­tric car is shown at an ex­hi­bi­tion in Guangzhou, Guang­dong prov­ince in Au­gust.

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