How China built the world’s biggest EV charging network – and left the US far behind – EQ Mag
China built 650,000 public EV chargers last year — 10 times the number in the US.
The car is undoubtedly an American icon, and so too — in its own way — is the humble gas station. There’s the one in California’s Central Valley where James Dean made a last stop to refuel before his death — hard to miss, with its towering cutout sign of Dean in his classic pose. There’s the now-retired station in northern California, built from a giant redwood in the 1930s, the Citgo sign blazing over Boston’s skyline, the Pops station in Arcadia, Oklahoma where you can get gas — and 700 different types of soda. The list is long.
On the other side of the world, in China, the car is a relatively new passion — bicycles ruled the roads in major cities as recently as the 1980s — and there is decidedly less attachment to the gas-guzzling era and all its trappings. That helps explain why last year, nearly 4 million electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in China — quadruple the U.S. figure. And those cars came with 37,000 gleaming new charging stations, all across the country, each carrying multiple chargers. The boom in chargers has helped drive the boom in China’s EV industry itself, and it’s just getting started.
As with airports, roads and high-speed rail lines, China has been able to build this new wave of infrastructure at lightning speed. The charging station boom has helped assuage drivers’ “range anxiety” — the concern about dying batteries ruining long trips.
“Aside from the number of products and the competition in China, the fact that people don’t think about where they need to charge … that’s done so much,” Tu Le, the managing director of Sino Auto Insights, told Grid. “The anxiety or the doubt is one of the big hurdles that the U.S. automakers need to help buyers overcome.”
China’s charging stations are a symbol not only of the country’s potential to dominate the global electric car industry but also are a reminder of the challenges facing the U.S. as it looks to meet its climate goals and play one more game of crucial industrial catchup with China.
Charging ahead — China’s record-breaking infrastructure rollout
Just a decade ago, there were fewer than 30,000 public chargers in all of China; now, hundreds of thousands of are being built every year.
Even by the standards of Chinese infrastructure growth, it’s a fast turn. China’s electric vehicle charging alliance recently reported that in 2022, 650,000 public chargers were built, bringing China to a total of 1.8 million. In Guangdong province alone, there are 383,000; that’s more than double the number of public chargers in the entire United States.
Public electric car chargers by region
Number of slow charging points, since 2014
China also installed 2.6 million private home chargers last year — but it’s the increasingly dense network of public charging stations that’s a game changer for China’s EV drivers, given that more than 900 million people live in urban areas. Most of these people don’t live in single-family homes, and many lack their own parking spot, so installing a home charger is out of the question.
The country is leading the charge, so to speak, by another key metric: the speed of charging. Conventional car drivers typically need only five minutes to fill their gas tanks; for electric cars to break through, it’s critical for companies to cut down charging time as much as possible. Within China’s public charging fleet, 40 percent are “fast chargers” — well above the share in other countries. The speed varies, but at the top end, these chargers allow you to be on your way again after just 20 minutes, as opposed to charging overnight on a slow charger.
Again, that’s especially important in China. Wang, an EV owner in Beijing who asked for partial anonymity, told Grid he doesn’t have a home parking spot, so he relies on fast chargers in his neighborhood to recharge every couple of weeks. He’s found a fast charger in a mall near the mountains outside the city to enable his winter routine: snowboarding. “I often drive to the mall and charge a little bit and have lunch, and then in the afternoon, I go to Nanshan,” he said, referring to a local resort.
How China made EV charging ubiquitous
Why has China been able to build out a new grid of EV chargers so quickly while the U.S. has struggled?
The answer dates back more than a decade to a sweeping vision that China laid out for making the country the center of the international electric vehicle revolution. The government began subsidizing electric car sales in 2010, when the EV industry was young. In 2015, the State Council issued a sweeping plan with a goal of building charging infrastructure to serve 5 million electric cars by 2020.
Then China threw the muscle of its state-owned companies and public transport system behind the EV push. The two main state utility companies were deployed to build out a network of chargers on the nation’s highways. And local governments quickly jumped in as well. Public bus and taxi fleets in many cities went electric, spurring the construction of more charging stations. Meanwhile, more than 30 cities provided incentives or subsidies for companies to install chargers, according to a paper published by the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy.
That all-hands approach was key — but the Chinese government has also nailed some important details, experts told Grid — like enforcing one standard plug for EV charging. The U.S. has no such standard, which has created headaches for drivers when they can’t find the right plug at a particular charging station. Another example: In that 2015 plan, the government required that 10 percent of parking in new public buildings be allocated for charging, and several local governments have set higher requirements.
Experts say that kind of planning makes a big difference. Le, who used to live in China, complained that he recently moved into a newly built apartment near Detroit — the historic heart of America’s auto industry — only to find that the building’s parking area had no chargers. “How am I going to buy my EV if I can’t plug it in anywhere?” he said. “In China that’s not even an issue.”
The government investment has also inspired the private sector in China. Marie Rajon Bernard, an associate electric vehicle researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, told Grid that “the more policy certainty there is, then the more confident the private sector is investing in those technologies.” The three Chinese companies with the most chargers by the end of 2022 were all private, with TELD taking the lead. The companies have struggled to make a profit so far, but they’re essentially racing to claim charging real estate, knowing that EVs will only become more widespread in the coming years.
Finally, China’s full embrace of QR code payment via apps like WeChat and Alipay have also helped make EV driving much easier. Anders Hove, a senior research fellow focused on China at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, has taken EV road trips in China, Europe and the U.S. to test different charging systems. In Europe, he encountered roadblocks to paying for charging with different memberships and interfaces required at different stations. In China, payments were mostly seamless. “All those barriers to charging that we have over here in the U.K. or U.S., they really are kind of fixed [in China] by the existence of WeChat and Ali Pay,” he said.
China’s system still has its flaws. Most of China’s chargers are still concentrated in affluent eastern cities; to increase adoption through the country, they will have to become more widespread in the coming years. And sometimes the on the ground experience doesn’t live up to the hype. On his EV journey from Beijing to Inner Mongolia in 2019, Hove encountered several stations that had fallen into disrepair because they hadn’t been used. While the headline numbers are impressive, Hove said all countries need to evaluate the full user experience.
There’s also the question of keeping up with demand. Based on IEA data from 2021, China had one public charger for every seven electric vehicles, whereas the U.S. only had one for every 18. Shawn Ou, a transportation researcher at Oak Ridge National Lab, doesn’t think the boom in China has been fast enough. “Although a large number of public charging stations are being built,” he told Grid, “the pace of construction is not keeping up with sales.”
That was clear during the recent Lunar New Year holiday rush when some highway charging stations were swamped. After seeing such reports in recent years, Wang — the snowboarder — has yet to attempt the 400-kilometer drive back to his hometown in Shandong.
The opportunity for the U.S.: From gas stations to charging stations
So far, the U.S. has been largely reliant on home charging to power its rising number of EVs, but that won’t cut it if the country is to meet its climate goals. The Biden administration has set targets for 50 percent of car sales to be EVs or plug-in hybrids by 2030.
More public chargers are needed to convince Americans that they can take road trips without stalling far from home. And public chargers are also critical for Americans who, like many Chinese, don’t have their own parking space. “That is extremely important to make sure that electric vehicles can be for everybody and not just for privileged communities,” Leonardo Paoli, a clean transport analyst at the International Energy Agency, told Grid.
The U.S. government has taken note of the gap in U.S. infrastructure. EV charging won support in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocated $5 billion to new chargers in the coming years. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last summer, also provides a tax credit of up to 30 percent for individuals installing chargers in low-income or rural areas. As of last fall, the Department of Transportation announced it had approved plans to start building the new chargers along highways and in rural areas in all 50 states.
For EV advocates, the change is welcome, but the road ahead is steep — S&P Global Mobility Insights projects that EV chargers will need to quadruple by 2025 to keep up with U.S. EV sales.
For U.S. companies to compete in the EV space, there are many challenges ahead — building out a battery supply chain, reducing the cost of vehicles to make them more accessible and making charging available to all. Meanwhile, China is pulling ahead.
“What China’s doing is effectively executing on a long-term strategy,” said Le, who’s worked in the auto industry in both the U.S. and China. “What we’re seeing [in China] is a lot of innovation while a lot of foreign companies that had historically been very successful are losing out.”